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For more than a year, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted virtually every aspect of life on Earth. As we find ways to adapt to the new living, working, and social conditions necessitated by the pandemic, and look forward to an eventual end to it as vaccines become more widely available, we must ask what we can do to prevent this from ever happening again.

To answer this question, we must look to where and how SARS-CoV-2 – the virus responsible for the COVID-19 outbreak – developed and what actions we can take to stop the emergence of future illnesses.

COVID-19: A Zoonotic Disease

COVID-19 is an example of a zoonotic disease – an illness that can spread from animals to humans  – and, it is far from the only such virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 60 percent of all human infectious diseases are zoonoses and around 75 percent of infectious diseases that have affected people over the past three decades originated from wild animals, including Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Ebola, Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and HIV.

A 2020 report on Biodiversity and Pandemics published by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) indicated that an estimated 1.7 million currently undiscovered viruses are thought to exist in mammal and avian hosts. Of these, 631,000–827,000 could have the ability to infect humans.

To stop the emergence of future zoonotic pandemics, therefore, we must reevaluate our relationship to animals and change how we treat wildlife and the natural world.

Wildlife Trafficking: An Immoral Trade

The COVID-19 virus appears to have originated in wild animals that had been illegally trafficked as part of the global wildlife trade.

Illegal wildlife trade is the unauthorized selling and purchasing of wild animals and plants, as well as their parts and derivatives, including bones, skins, ivory, scales, and bushmeat. The latest World Wildlife Crime report published in 2020 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) indicates that 6,000 different species of animals and plants have been seized between 1999 and 2018, with nearly every country in the world playing a role in the illicit wildlife trade. The value of illegal wildlife trafficking is estimated between $7 and $23 billion per year.

The world is facing an extinction crisis, with more than 1 million species at risk of extinction in the coming decades. This lucrative but extremely harmful trade is one of the key factors driving biodiversity loss.

Wildlife Trafficking: A Dangerous Gamble

In addition to its devastating impact on wildlife species, the COVID-19 pandemic also demonstrates how dangerous this trade is for human health and safety.

Many of the wild animal species commonly found in illegal trade, such as bats, non-human primates, birds, and pangolins, are known to carry diseases. But, in nature, wildlife species are not necessarily in close proximity to one another or to humans, and thus pathogens have a low risk of jumping from one animal to the next. Trafficked animals, however, are forced into small and often filthy spaces with other wildlife and with humans, creating the perfect conditions for the spread of disease.

Wildlife market.
Markets selling live animals, or parts of wild animals, play a particular role in the transmission of zoonotic pathogens. Cropped version of photo by Dan Bennett, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Markets selling live animals, or parts of wild animals, play a particular role in the transmission of zoonotic pathogens and legal frameworks regulating wildlife trade are too weak to protect human health. In a report published on April 12, 2021, the WHO concluded that traditional food markets, where live animals taken from the wild are sold and slaughtered, “provide the opportunity for animal viruses, including coronaviruses, to amplify themselves and transmit to new hosts, including humans.” Because of this risk, the WHO recommended that countries “suspend the trade in live caught wild animals” and “close sections of food markets selling live caught wild animals” to reduce the public health risks.

Another study published in 2021 found that “the illegal importation of exotic pets (small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, birds), is a growing activity worldwide, and poses public health risks for the transmission of zoonotic pathogens.” The authors of this study also confirmed that trade and consumption of bushmeat, due to “lack of appropriate hygiene conditions in the commercialization of wildlife meat,” is also responsible for the spread of zoonotic diseases, with “zoonotic viruses (…) detected in the bushmeat of non-human primates illegally imported from Guinea, Nigeria, and Liberia, and seized at international airports in the USA.”

Experts suspect that COVID-19 was likely transmitted to humans from its reservoir host, a horseshoe bat, via another intermediate host species – possibly a pangolin. Pangolins are considered the world’s most heavily trafficked mammal. A 2020 report about the growing trade of African pangolins into China’s traditional medicine industry confirmed that “the annual quantity of pangolin scales seized globally increased by nearly 400 percent between 2015 and 2019, and authorities seized over 323 tonnes of pangolin meat and scales during those five years.”

The case of pangolins is just one example of many of how the trade in the animals and their parts and derivatives not only threatens the survival of the species, but also poses a significant risk to public health.

A Threat to Ecosystems Is a Threat to Human Health

In addition to illegal wildlife trade, the destruction of natural ecosystems, via deforestation and other land-use changes, is another key factor in increasing the risks of zoonotic disease emergence.

When environmental disturbances due to human activities occur, ecosystems and habitats are reduced and become smaller, and this puts animal species – possibly carrying viruses – in close proximity to humans and to other animals.

This increasing human/wildlife contact results in a high incidence of zoonotic viruses as pathogens jump from animals to humans in ever-shrinking natural spaces that were once large and spacious enough to prevent it.

Deforestation in Madagascar.
The destruction of natural ecosystems, via deforestation and other land use changes, is another key factor in increasing the risks of zoonotic disease emergence. Photo by Cunningchrisw, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Where Do We Go from Here?

The role played by poorly regulated wildlife trade and ecosystem loss in the spread of zoonotic diseases is now well-understood and we must act quickly to address these issues.

Current wildlife trade laws do not take into account public or animal health concerns. In order to protect public health, we must urgently close wildlife markets, ban the use of wildlife in traditional medicine, and encourage people to stop consuming wildlife products.

Investment in nature recovery is also a priority if we want to bring about the transformative changes needed to protect people and wildlife around the globe. In response to COVID-19, Born Free launched the Global Nature Recovery Investment Initiative, which sets out measures aimed at halting and reversing biodiversity loss and wildlife overexploitation; delivering enhanced and sustainable ecosystem viability and services, alongside climate change mitigation; and the promotion of public and animal health, sustainable livelihoods, and food and societal security.

Through this initiative, we promote recognition of the One Health and One Welfare frameworks, which recognize the links between animal health and welfare, human health and well-being, and broader environmental health; and support the incorporation of these principles into international policy initiatives and their implementation.

You Can Help!

 We must act now to protect animals, ecosystems, and global public health! Here is how you can help:

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