In December 2019, a mysterious respiratory illness began affecting residents of the central Chinese city known as Wuhan. Doctors soon learned the illness was caused by a new viral strain from the coronavirus family.
That virus, known as novel coronavirus or (formally) SARS-CoV-2, has now triggered a worldwide pandemic. The virus is proving to be highly contagious, and while 75 to 80 percent of people who contract it recover fully without special treatment, many require hospitalization or intensive care. As of March 31st, 2020, over 41,400 people around the world have died from complications of COVID-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, and nearly 850,000 people have fallen ill with it.
Where did this new strain of virus come from? Despite circulating rumors of bioengineering and bioterrorism, data points to an animal-to-human origin, and many (including the government of China) believe the live animal trade in China is largely responsible for the so-called zoonotic transmission of this potentially deadly pathogen.
The Coronavirus: Evidence Points to Animal Origin
According to a March 17 paper from Nature Medicine, the SARS-CoV-2—one of seven types of coronaviruses that can infect humans—originally evolved in animals, likely bats or pangolins (a type of anteater). "Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus," the researchers say, but rather the result of natural selection inside an animal host. The researchers came to their conclusion based on careful analysis of the SARS-CoV-2 genetic sequence and molecular structure, as well as comparison to other known coronaviruses.
Viruses from the coronavirus family commonly infect animals. Such viruses were also responsible for other recent health outbreaks including the SARS epidemic of 2003 and the MERS outbreak, which began in 2012 in Saudi Arabia and is still going on today.
The Nature Medicine paper, along with other research—including a paper published one month earlier in the Journal of Autoimmunity—hypothesize that the presence of a large and (formerly) active live animal market in Wuhan is the likely source of the virus that causes COVID-19, since so many people later diagnosed with the virus had direct exposure to the market itself.
Since the live animal trade seems to be such an obvious smoking gun in this pandemic, it stands to reason that action must be taken to curb this activity. Will such preventive measures happen?
China's Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic: Is a Ban on Wildlife Trade Coming?
Organizations around the world are calling for closures of the live animal markets in China as a way to prevent anything like this happening again in the future (leaving aside the ethical and ecological implications of such trade).
Such steps can't come too soon, many will argue, since this isn't even the first time the live animal trade (alternatively referred to as a "wet market") has been implicated in a viral disease outbreak. Experts believe that the coronavirus strain responsible for the SARS epidemic also originated in animals and passed to humans due to exposure to infected animals in these Chinese markets.
According to reports from The Guardian and Nature, Chinese officials enacted a temporary ban on wildlife trade in January (where trading and eating of bats, pangolins, snakes, peacocks, and other unusual fare happens regularly). The Chinese government has since proposed or acted on new restrictions regarding breeding and consumption of certain types of meat.
Such restrictions may include major revisions to the Wildlife Protection Law. Last revised in 2016, the law prohibits killing, sale, and purchase of 1,800 rare and endangered animals, with provisions allotted for special permission. Unfortunately, the pangolin (suspected by researchers to be a likely source of SARS-CoV-2) is already on this list.
This could mean that in addition to revising current laws to include banning of meat sales and consumption, there will likely need to be tighter regulation of the existing laws to ensure people are not engaging in illegal activities—potentially at the peril of the world at large.