COVID-19, the high price of messing with nature

More than a third of the world’s population is currently confined to their homes, that is, almost 2.5 billion human beings of more than 200 nationalities with different languages are sheltered into their own homes to prevent a new virus which is called SARS-CoV-2 from entering into their bodies and causing the disease referred to as COVID-19. And as the days of quarantine pass, millions of people are trying to understand what this virus is, what caused it, and how their relationship with wildlife and the environment at large will change in the future.

Once Upon a Time in China

In mid-December 2019, a series of cases of atypical pneumonia were reported in the city of Wuhan, in China’s Hubei Province. In mid-January, the Chinese government, through the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), was able to successfully identify the disease agent as a new coronavirus, coronavirus 2019-nCoV, later coined SARS-CoV-2 by the International Committee for Virus Taxonomy (ICTV).

The numbers of cases grew dramatically, which is why the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international importance on 30 January this year. It was on February 11 that the WHO referred to the disease as COVID-19 (an acronym for Coronavirus Disease 2019). Finally, on March 11, the WHO declared it a «global pandemic», with a significant presence in more than 200 countries and countless infected and deceased by this disease.

The Chinese authorities, with the support of the scientific community, have considered its origin as a «zoonotic disease», in other words a disease that was transmitted from an animal to a human being. However, this transmission had not necessarily happened by the simple food consumption of a particular species, the fundamental cause is found in the whole «commercialization process», from the transfer of its natural habitat to the point of commercialization: transportation (land, aerial, inland or maritime); the arrival to sale points in urban areas (animal markets); the conditions of confinement, generally in unhealthy places (small cages); the coexistence of different wildlife species with different domestic animals; among others.

All these factors cause wildlife species to become stressed and immunosuppressed, a situation that allows viruses and coronaviruses to be transmitted to other species. Furthermore, and is very important to highlight the fact that:

Currently, the scientific community has not yet conclusively determined the species that carries the virus, as well as the species that transmits it to humans. The reason is simple, the «patient zero» of the COVID-19 has not yet appeared.

Notwithstanding this scenario, most of the media based on «scientific information», have found bats responsible for this pandemic as a carrier species of the virus, and pangolins as the species that transmitted it to humans. Although there is still no verifiable scientific basis, since they are simply hypotheses and theories based on previous viral outbreaks (SARS and MERS).

What Is a New Virus?

First of all, we must differentiate between what is a coronavirus and what is a disease. Since both concepts could be rather misleading and they have generated a lot of misinformation and panic among population.

According to the WHO, «Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses which may cause illness in animals or humans. In humans, several coronaviruses are known to cause respiratory infections ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). The most recently discovered coronavirus causes coronavirus disease COVID-19”.

There are currently 39 species of coronavirus (including this latest discovery that causes COVID-19). They are subdivided into four genera, highlighting those of the genus Betacoronavirus, whose ancestors are more than 3 thousand years old on earth and are the ones that have caused the most infectious diseases to humans in recent years: Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV of 2003); Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV of 2012); and now Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome of 2019 (SARS-CoV-2 of 2019).

“The coronavirus is perhaps humanity’s first clear, indisputable sign that environmental damage can kill humans fast too. And it can also happen again, for the same reasons”

Professor Andrew Cunningham, Zoological Society of London (CNN, March 20)

Moreover, the WHO defines COVID-19 disease as follows: “is the infectious disease caused by the most recently discovered coronavirus. This new virus and disease were unknown before the outbreak began in Wuhan, China, in December 2019”.

It is important to mention that we are facing a new virus, so the identification of its origin and transmission is currently under research, as well as the development of its vaccine.

The predominant route of transmission of COVID-19 is from human to human, as stated by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), and current evidence suggests that the COVID-19 virus emerged from an animal source. “However, to date, there is not enough scientific evidence to identify the source of the COVID-19 virus or to explain the original route of transmission to humans (which may have involved an intermediate host)”.

SARS and MERS Were the Prelude

Before the rise of this new «coronavirus» in China, there were two pandemics that foreshadowed the complexity and danger of these new viruses: the SARS epidemic in 2003 and the MERS epidemic in 2012.

SARS was the first pandemic of the new millennium. It infected nearly 8,000 people and caused the death of 800 (10%). It broke out in late 2002 in China’s Guangdong province and the virus was named SARS-CoV. The «patient zero» was infected in a marketplace where both wild and domestic species are sold (wet market) through contact with a wild mammal (some bred in captivity for consumption) known as «palm civet» (Paguma larvata) whose distribution area is located in China, Japan and throughout Southeast Asia.

Palm civet (Paguma larvata)

Later, scientists found another animal that transmitted this virus in the same «wet markets» and was the so-called «raccoon dog» (Nyctereutes procyonoides), a raccoon-like mammal that is original from eastern China, the Korean peninsula and Japan. These two species were the «carrier species » of the coronavirus, however, the «reservoir species» remained unknown.

After a while, many scientists determined that the «Chinese Horseshoe Bat» (Rhinolophus sinicus), had about 90% genomic identity with the SARS-CoV virus, so they considered this species as a “possible natural reservoir» of this coronavirus. These bats originally came from China, India, Nepal and Vietnam. To this day, this has not been fully tested.

MERS was the second pandemic of this century caused by a coronavirus and appeared in Saudi Arabia. Between September 2012 and November 2013 there were 157 cases and 66 people died (42% mortality). Most of those affected were Saudi Arabians. To date, the origin of this disease has not been determined, only that it is «likely» that the disease is a zoonosis of «some species» (without determining the exact species) of bats of the genus Pipistrellus that has been transmitted to a dromedary (Camelus dromedarius), a very common domesticated species in the Arabian Peninsula.

2004: “One World, One Health” Project

On September 29, 2004, a Symposium on Human Health, Domestic Animals and Wildlife was held in New York City, following the appearance of many zoonotic diseases (Ebola, SARS, Nile virus, mad cow disease, among others). This meeting was called by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and included representatives from the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), as well as international centers for the prevention and control of infectious diseases, scientists and researchers from many countries around the world.

The outcome of this meeting was the document entitled «The Manhattan Principles on One World, One Health», which is to be based on «a holistic approach to prevent epidemic and epizootic diseases that respects the integrity of ecosystems, for the benefit of humans, domestic animals and biodiversity worldwide.»

On 14 October 2008, the three UN bodies (WHO, FAO and OIE) with the support of the World Bank, published the document entitled «Contributing to One World, One Health: A Strategic Framework for Reducing Risks of Infectious Diseases at the Animal-Human-Ecosystems Interface.»

“More than 30 new human infectious diseases have emerged over the past three decades, most of them originating in the animal world. The “One Health” movement is about preventing situations such as deforestation and certain agricultural practices that encourage their emergence, and it advocates for early detection” (Bulletin of the WHO, December 2011).

According to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), 60% of known infectious diseases are of animal origin (domestic or wildlife), as are 75% of emerging human diseases.

Science and Entertainment Announced the Pandemic

In October 2007, an article entitled «Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus as an Agent of Emerging and Reemerging Infection» was published in the scientific journal Clinical Microbiology Reviews, warning of the dangers that a new pandemic could arise in the future from wildlife consumption and trafficking in southern China. This publication was prepared by Dr Kwok Yung Yuen and his colleagues at the Research Centre of Infection and Immunology of The University of Hong Kong. Their findings include something that seemed rather foreshadowing:

«The presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in Chinese horseshoe bats, coupled with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time-bomb. The possibility of the re-emergence of SARS and other new animal viruses, therefore, the need for prevention should not be ignored.”

In September 2011 the American film «Contagion» directed by Steven Soderbergh will be premiered. In the final scene, he reveals his view on the origin of these diseases: the scene begins with the destruction of the habitat of a bats’ colony, that subsequently escape to commercial crops to feed themselves (a banana farm) and take refuge in a pig farm. Leftovers fall to the ground and are eaten by the herd of pigs on the farm. Finally, the chef of a Hong Kong restaurant decides to choose a piglet. It will be prepared in a luxury dinner, leading to the first infection with the protagonist of the film (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is the «patient zero».

 The film «Contagion» was released in 2011, fiction became reality

The film is fictional, but is based on two true stories from the 1990s: the discovery of the Hendra virus (in Australia) and the Nipah virus (in Bangladesh, India, Malaysia and Singapore).In that regard, the film was developed with the collaboration of scientists from the Australian Animal Health Laboratory, one of the world’s largest biocontainment centers working with animal pathogens.

Additionally, author and science writer David Quammen wrote in his book in 2012 entitled «Spillover» that focuses on infections of animal origin (zoonotic virus) and a future human pandemic. The book highlights the relationship between environmental destruction and climate change with the emergence of infectious pandemics of animal origin (zoonotic diseases). On 25 March, in an interview with the Italian newspaper «Il Manifesto», Quammen blames human destruction of biodiversity and human interference in the environment creates the conditions for new viruses like this current virus.

Concerning the role of bats as a possible «reservoir species» of coronavirus, he says “the solution is we should leave bats alone, because we need bats and our ecosystems need bats”. Bats are fundamental to the health of our tropical ecosystems. The most important problem is misinformation; people are more interested in «conspiracies» than in science. The urgent matter is to prevent the destruction of biological diversity and the invasion of the diverse ecosystems.

On the Verge of Racism and Xenophobia

The misinformation about this new Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) and its disease (COVID-19) has generated terrible episodes caused by fear and ignorance, highlighting: racist and xenophobic behavior against Asian communities around the world; strange conspiracy theories considering that it was created in a laboratory; violent attacks and stigmatization of very valuable species such as bats; evidence of illegal trafficking of species and their commercialization for consumption, like in the case of pangolins.

When WHO received the sequenced genome from the Chinese authorities on January 12, it was temporarily referred to as 2019-nCoV (2019-novel Coronavirus). On social networks it began to be called Wu Flu or Wuhan Flu, so on January 30 the WHO recommended keeping the name 2019-nCoV until the official name was obtained from the International Classification of Diseases (ICD). When the information provided by the Chinese authorities was verified as a new coronavirus, it was named COVID-19 (Coronavirus disease 2019) as of February 11, to avoid any stigmatization of any community group, place or animal species.

The last-mentioned is very relevant, since with the appearance of this new coronavirus it has awakened expressions of hate and intolerant actions against people of Asian descent (not necessarily Chinese) in many countries of the world. On top of that, US President Donald Trump has insisted on calling it «Chinese Flu» or some members of his cabinet «Kung Flu»; denominations that are completely racist and xenophobic.

A vivid historical example of this unfortunate situation was the so-called «Spanish Flu», a pandemic that occurred between 1918 and 1920 by an Influenza A virus of subtype H1N1, killing about 30 million people. Many historians still argue whether it was originated in a military fort in Kansas, USA, transported by American troops to France in World War I; or whether it was British soldiers who acquired it during this war in the eastern part of the Anatolian peninsula (now Turkey), part of the Ottoman Empire.

The belligerent countries banned the press from addressing the issue so as not to affect the morale of the troops. Therefore, Spain, as a neutral country in that war, was the only country that reported on the pandemic in its press, historically carrying the negative stigma of having initiated this pandemic.

“Conspiracy» Stories

This pandemic has generated a series of unfounded theories ranging on the one hand from the Chinese government’s «conspiracy» to create this virus in the laboratory to take over world economic power, or on the other hand, that it was created by US troops to affect Chinese economic interests (both theories lack any scientific basis, as it has been proven that it is impossible to have created this type of virus in a laboratory).

Shortly after the outbreak of the epidemic, Chinese scientists sequenced the SARS-CoV-2 virus genome and made the data available to the world. WHO validated the data provided by the Chinese scientists and brought together a group of experts to study whether the virus originated naturally or was created in a laboratory. The result is that the virus was not produced in a laboratory, it has a natural origin.

On March 17, the scientific journal «Nature Medicine» published the results of the work of a group of scientists of various nationalities and leading academic institutions, who were coordinated by specialist Dr. Kristian G. Andersen from The Scripps Research Institute, a biomedical research center in the United States.

As Dr. Andersen states that comparing available genome sequence data for known strains of coronavirus, “our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus”. Thus, the scientists concluded that the virus was a result of natural selection and not a product of genetic engineering.

Attacks and Stigmatization on Bats

The WHO has defined the “infodemic” as misinformation and rumors spreading more quickly than the current outbreak of the new coronavirus (COVID-19). This contributes to negative effects including stigmatization on bats, because it has been presumed that the original reservoir was the Horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus sinicus), because of its similarity to the 2003 SARS-CoV outbreak.

On one hand, in mid-March, in the north of Peru, in Cajamarca, province of Santa Cruz, its inhabitants burned hundreds of bats located in a cave near the town. Thanks to the efforts of Jessica Gálvez-Durand, Director of Sustainable Wildlife Management at Peru’s National Forest and Wildlife Service (SERFOR), nearly 200 bats were rescued. Likewise, SERFOR started a strong campaign in social networks to protect these important species.

Chinese horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus sinicus)

On the other hand, Dr. Rodrigo Medellín, member of the Institute of Ecology of the UNAM and President of the Specialist Group on Bats of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), known as the «Mexican Batman», has shown his concern for this new informative attack against bats. «It inflamed the negative attitude towards bats. And there’s no greater injustice than that. The bats are not to blame. On the contrary, every day they give us great benefits that we do not recognize,” he declared on March 31 to the digital media Mongabay Latam.

There are about 1,400 species of bats in the world that play a fundamental role in the health of ecosystems: they are pollinators; seed dispersers; insect pest controllers; among many other environmental functions and services.

Bats have a very resistant immune system, which allows them to tolerate different types of viruses, such as coronaviruses. Being a «reservoir species » for these coronaviruses does not mean that they transmit them to humans under normal conditions.

The main problem is described by two human activities: a) the loss of habitat for these species through deforestation for agricultural activities and commercial plantations; and b) legal trade (or illegal trafficking) of these wild species for consumption or to be sold for the pet market.

Illegal Trafficking of Species and the Case of Pangolins

Species trafficking, that includes animals and plants, is one of the most damaging and profitable illicit businesses in the world. The United Nations estimates that the global illegal trade in wildlife is approximately $23 billion each year, an amount comparable to the one that moves arms and drug trafficking.

The most widely trafficked mammal in the world is the pangolin. More than one million pangolins have been killed in species trafficking over the past 15 years. In the first week of February only this year, a container with about 10 tons of pangolin scales was seized in the city of Lagos, Nigeria, to be exported to Asia. This represents approximately 20 thousand dead animals.

The pangolin is a small mammal that lives in Africa (4 species) and in Southeast Asia (4 species), it is the only mammal that is totally covered by «scales», which are very appreciated in the Asian markets because they are considered in the Chinese traditional medicine, besides its meat is considered a delicacy in those places.

In 2016, the CITES Convention (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), which aims to «ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival» and has more than 180 member countries, reached an agreement to totally ban the trade in pangolins, a major step towards protecting the species from extinction. However, illegal trafficking of the species continues.

On March 26th a scientific article entitled «Identifying SARS-CoV-2 related coronaviruses in Malayan pangolins» was published in the scientific journal «Nature» considering the Malayan pangolins (Manis javanica) as a possible host species (transmitting animal) of the coronavirus upon discovering the similarity of their genome sequences with those of the virus.

The samples were taken from 18 Malaysian pangolins that were seized by Chinese authorities between August 2017 and January 2018 in Guangxi, the southern autonomous region of China that borders Vietnam (one of the international borders with the highest number of wildlife trafficking cases). Samples were examined in early March at the Customs Technology Center in Guangzhou, Canton, finding that these new coronaviruses in the pangolins were similarly sequenced at 85.5% to 92.4% with SARS-CoV-2.

Measures Taken by the Government of China and Vietnam

Following the outbreak of COVID-19, the Chinese government temporarily banned trade in wildlife in mid-January and carried out raids on wildlife markets (wet markets). However, the outlook is not encouraging. Nearly 40,000 wild animals have been confiscated and more than 350,000 places where these animals are traded (markets and restaurants) have been «cleaned up».

On 24 February 2020, the China’s Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress adopted a Decision to eliminate the consumption for food of wild animals to safeguard people’s lives and health. This Decision comes into force immediately. An historical and unprecedented measure.

This Decision was published at the request of China to the CITES Convention, through Notification to the Parties No. 2020/018 of March 5th, 2020.

Shortly thereafter, the government of Vietnam issued a Decree to ban local trade in wildlife, as well as its consumption, from April 1. According to a report released by the Chinese Academy of Engineering, the wildlife trade industry (legal and illegal) is valued at about US$74 billion and employs more than 14 million people.

Mexican wildlife researcher Dr. Gerardo Ceballos has pointed out the urgency of banning the trafficking and trade of wildlife in Asia for consumption, either as traditional medicine or as pets. Ceballos is one of the promoters of the Stop Extinction Movement and one of the world’s leading academics who says we are facing the Sixth Mass Extinction of species, where species are becoming extinct 100 times faster than they would without human impacts

This extinction, unlike the other five caused by natural phenomena, has been caused by humans and in a very short period (habitat destruction, over-exploitation of species, pollution and climate change).

Conclusions for Action

Wildlife is not responsible for the pandemic. The sole responsible is a species, a domesticated species (that is not domesticated). This species is HOMO SAPIENS, that primate of the hominid family that currently has a super-population of more than 7.7 billion people and that due to its «productive» activities. Through a voracious economic model of the planet’s natural resources, it has caused more than one million species of plants and animals to be currently in danger of extinction, according to the last Report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES7, 2019), the body which assesses the state of biodiversity and of the ecosystem services it provides to society, in response to request from decision makers.

Bats do not cause pandemics or attack humans. Coronaviruses have been found in various wildlife species for thousands of years, and many of them, such as bats, have generated an autoimmune system to the effects of these viruses. Bats do not attack humans or cause pandemics. On the contrary, bats generate immense benefits to humans: pollinators of very important crops; controllers of insect pests; they are fundamental species for the health of terrestrial ecosystems.

It is urgent to close the Wildlife markets for human consumption. Destroying the habitat of many species that host many pathogens in wildlife and their transportation to markets where they are traded live or dead, under unsanitary and stressful conditions, and living alongside many other wildlife and domestic species under precarious conditions is creating a high-risk interface for the emergence and transmission of zoonotic pathogens that can cause pandemics (SARS, MERS, COVID-19). The only exception should be for subsistence consumption by indigenous peoples and some local communities, ensuring that they do not endanger a threatened or endangered species. As well as a Protocol for the evaluation of sanitary measures for zoonotic transmission should be provided.

International frontal and coordinated combat to the illegal trade of Wildlife. The effective enforcement of environmental regulations must be done in a coordinated, transparent and informed manner. Tools for traceability, certification and monitoring of legal and illegal wildlife trade should be developed and implemented. Lastly, it is very important that we radically change our behavior and our relationships towards wildlife and animals in general. We are not just talking about a conservation issue; we are talking about a public health issue.

The immediate priority now is to protect people from this virus and prevent its spread. However, the medium- and long-term response must focus on preventing habitat and biodiversity loss. As Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, points out, “We are intimately interconnected with nature, whether we like it or not. If we don’t take care of nature, we can’t take care of ourselves.”

Any damage to the planet also means damage to humanity.

About the author. José Luis Funes is an environmental lawyer specialist in national and international environmental policy. Former Wildlife General Director of the Mexican Government.

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