By Andrea Galassi[*]
On December 1, 2017 an article entitled “Bat cave solves mystery of deadly SARS virus — and suggests new outbreak could occur” was published in Nature arguing that a single population of horseshoe bats (Rhinolophus) could be the answer to the question about the origin of the deadly SARS virus. “They sequenced the genomes of 15 viral strains from the bats and found that taken together, the strains contain all the genetic pieces that make up the human version.” However, another important outcome of the research was the suggestion that a new deadly outbreak similar to SARS could emerge in the near future. Moreover, in the last paragraphs, Kwok-Yung Yuen, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong who co-discovered the SARS virus in 2003, highlights the role that wildlife markets –also known as wet markets in China- could play in the possible outbreak: “we should not disturb wildlife habitats and never put animals into markets […] is the way to stay away from the harm of emerging infections.”
Two years later, on January 11, 2020, the People’s Republic of China reported its first death from a new virus: a surreptitious pneumonia-like illness took the life of a 61-year-old man in the city of Wuhan, the capital of the Hubei province. On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared COVID-19 as a pandemic after the disease, which mortality appears to be higher than seasonal influenza, affected 114 countries and killed more than 4,000 people. By this time (March 27, 2020), when there are more than 550,000 positive cases and more than 25,000 deaths of COVID-19 from 196 countries and territories around the world and 1 international conveyance (the Diamond Princess cruise ship harbored in Yokohama, Japan), both symptoms and how this new infection is transmitted are identified. Nevertheless, science is racing fast in order to develop a vaccine and in finding the animal that allows the transmission from bats to humans.
Since many coronaviruses are zoonotic diseases, COVID-19 is, according to Nature, “the third documented spillover of an animal coronavirus to humans” in the last two decades. Hence, the Coronaviridae Study Group (CSG) of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses recognized the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) as forming a sister clade to the prototype human and bat severe acute respiratory syndrome coronaviruses (SARS-CoVs) of the species Severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus. As stated by the WHO, SARS-CoVs identified in 2003 “is thought to be an animal virus from an as-yet-uncertain animal reservoir, perhaps bats, that spread to other animals (civet cats) and first infected humans in the Guangdong province of southern China in 2002.”
Though, civet cats are not the only ones to be linked to the transmission of coronaviruses. On February 10, 2020, the New York Times referred to pangolins, one of the most trafficked mammals in Asia and Africa and highly prized for its meat and medicinal properties, as a potential coronavirus host. The source, a first report on the viral diversity of pangolins published in 2019 by Chinese scientists, alleged that these non-human animals could host a variety of coronaviruses as “virus in pangolins had a 99 percent match to the novel coronavirus.” Conversely, as more evidence is required, researchers are still looking for the intermediate host.
Even though it is unclear which animal transferred the SARS-CoV-2 to humans, China has admitted it needs to regulate its wildlife industry in order to prevent another outbreak. Consequently, in late February 2020, a temporary ban on all farming and consumption of wild animals was declared, and it is expected to be signed into law by the end of the year. Wild animals covered by the ban include those that the Wildlife Protection Law and other laws prohibit people from eating, terrestrial wild animals that China protects as they have “important ecological, scientific and social value,” as well as other terrestrial wild animals including those bred in captivity. In practice, the ban took effect over nearly 20,000 wildlife farms raising species including peacocks, civet cats, porcupines, ostriches, wild geese and boar.
Despite the fact that the ban is an important first step on the issue, experts suggest that the ban does not specifically address trade in wildlife for other purposes such as traditional medicine or decorative items. In other words, they are pointing out that these times are a great opportunity for China to size the problem once and for all, by giving the chance to change Chinese cultural and traditional behaviors towards wildlife animals.
The outbreak of the Wuhan coronavirus should not only remain in our memories as a disaster and chaos without precedents but also as the possibility for take all necessary steps to prevent future zoonotic pathogen transmissions that could bring up future outbreaks similar to COVID-19. After all, this pandemic would be also a call for governments to close live animal markets that trade in wild animals and as Dr. Christian Walzer, chief global veterinarian at the Wildlife Conservation Society, states “Preventing future zoonotic outbreaks is not about targeting one species—like pangolins, bats and snakes—but taking strong actions to ban wet markets trading in wildlife and broadly strengthening wildlife laws and regulations.”
[*]Andrea Galassi is a LLM Environmental Law Candidate at Elisabeth Haub School of Law (Pace University) and a Patagonia Shelf Team Lead at Earth Law Center (NYC). Previously, Andrea worked as Legal Consultant at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Worhship (Argentina) with a focus in Law of the Sea, Natural Resources and South Atlantic Affairs. She has a Master’s Degree in International Relations (USAL).