Covid-19: Let The Pangolin's Scales Fall From Your Eyes
When it comes to Covid-19 our best defense is to stop abusing animals. That is the message from many experts including Dr Anthony Fauci who has made a call to ban wildlife markets calling them an unusual human animal interface.
This call is echoed by the United Nations (UN) biodiversity chief who also says we need to ban wildlife markets in China and other countries in order to prevent future pandemics like the SARS Covid-19.
These wildlife markets are ideal sites for the emergence of new microbial pathogens like the SARS-coronaviruses that rely on hosts to mutate and spread. The route of transmission of SARS-coronaviruses is from wildlife to humans.
The three zoonotic corona viruses capable of causing severe respiratory infections in humans are SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV and COVID-19. SARS-CoV has what scientists call high host plasticity – this means it can be found in a high host range and can mutate to become capable of human to human transmission. This is what we have seen with COVID-19.
The ecology of SARS-coronaviruses is an interesting, convoluted and deadly field. Wading through it left me with two impressions – one was a headache and the other was that it all began with bats. There is a vast amount of academic literature saying that coronaviruses (of which Covid-19 is but one) have naturally evolved and been hosted by bats and birds.
But before you get all hung up on bats don’t blame them. And don’t get your feathers ruffled over birds. A recent research article has suggested that during the mutation of SARS Covid-19, pangolins provided a partial spike gene. The spike gene binds to a receptor on a human cell and thus gains entry – with often deadly consequences.
But don’t blame pangolins either. Let the scales fall from your eyes as to the real driver of virus spill over from animals to humans. A study conducted by the University of California and the University of Melbourne found that the drivers of transmission of zoonotic diseases are humans through the creation of animal-human interfaces.
These occur where animals and humans interact - in animal agriculture, human dwellings, hunting, laboratory research, zoos, and wildlife management and exploitation scenarios. We have used and abused animals to such an extent that we have fostered and enabled the transmission of zoonotic viruses.
They are all sites for the possible emergence and transmission of zoonotic viruses to humans.
These kind of interactions between humans and animals are mostly based on the ideology of human supremacy. Many of us are brought up with the unshakeable belief that there is a hierarchy in nature and that humans sit God-like at the pinnacle. It sure is getting very spiky up there on that mountain top.
Time to climb down.
We need to reframe our thinking, attitude and behaviour toward animals and non-human nature. It is not that animals pose a risk to humans because they are the source of new viruses. It is humans who pose a risk to themselves through the misguided belief that humans are a superior species who can (and should) use animals for their own benefit. That came back to bite us.
And when you think about it, what a convenient narrative it is to blame the animals. We literally invade their world, destroy their habitat, put them in filthy cages, eat them, wear them, use their bodies as living research objects and otherwise exploit them. And somehow it is their fault. That is just batty.
I want to challenge that narrative and I think we all need to be singing from the same hymn sheet on this. It is not the animals who pose a danger to humans – it is humans themselves. If we left animals and their habitat alone none of this would be happening. It really is quite simple.
Wildlife markets are destructive not only in terms of their potential as places where viruses may jump species. They are also destroyers of biodiversity and places of great cruelty.
China is one of the largest consumers of wild animals for food and medicine in the world. A study by Alex Chow, Szeman Cheung and Peter Yip in the Human – Wildlife Interactions Journal in 2014 found some disturbing facts. This study of wildlife markets from 7 cities in Guangdong and Guangxi provinces found that 97 animal species were sold of which 51% were reptiles (turtles and lizards), 21% were birds and 10% were mammals. Alarmingly, 23% of the reported species were threatened, 12 species endangered and one species critically endangered.
This study also showed that many of the species originated not only in South China but also Indochina (such as the Indochinese box turtle) and Southeast Asia (such as the Burmese Python). Most of the animals were believed to be wild caught because tooth-like wounds (caused by traps) could be seen on their feet.
A significant number of these animals in China have been poached and there is evidence of extensive and expanding networks of illegal international wildlife trading.
Another academic study from 2004 linked the SARS corona virus to the wildlife trade and population growth. It clearly stated that “the underlying roots of newly emergent zoonotic diseases may lie in the parallel biodiversity crisis of massive species loss as a result of overexploitation of wild animal populations and the destruction of their natural habitats by increasing human populations”. They called for a less human-centred approach to our relationship with animals.
Apparently we did not listen and I am rapidly losing faith that we ever will.
Wherever humans settle they exploit non-human animals for their own gain. And it has now come back to haunt us in the shape of Covid-19. We need to critically look at our relationship with animals and re-imagine it if humans and animals are to have a future on this planet.
So please don’t blame the animals. It’s our fault and we need to do something about it.