We have known for some time that viruses have the ability to transfer from animals to humans. That transfer even has a technical name: ’zoonosis’ an infectious disease that is
transmitted between species from animals to humans (or from humans to animals). We’ve known because we have lived with rabies for a very long time, thankfully now a rare but very
serious infection of the brain and nerves. It’s usually caught from the bite or scratch of an infected animal, most often a dog. In recent memory is the terrible impact of mad cow disease
and a human version of mad cow disease called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) which was believed to be caused by eating beef products contaminated with central nervous system tissue, such as brain and spinal cord, from cattle infected with mad cow disease. We still remember the terrible outcome of the recent Foot and Mouth disease which resulted in millions of animals being slaughtered.
A change in our laws concerning the transportation of live stock and pets, the strict identification of all animal livestock destined for the food chain, a massive vaccination programme on some livestock and, controversially sometimes the culling of wildlife deemed to carry diseases thought to be transferred such as TB through badgers, has helped to control these diseases in this country. So it is understandable that we should be incredulous that such strict measures to help protect humans and animals is not applied in the same way elsewhere. Not just that such basic hygiene and welfare standards are not expected or enforced, but changes are not made even after an outbreak with terrible consequences. For example the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2002 and 2003 led to more than 8,000 infections worldwide and killed close to 10% of those infected. It was caused by a coronavirus that made a species jump from bats to humans through the host of farmed civet cats bred for human consumption in China, including the area around Wuhan.
Yet 20 years later nearly 20,000 wildlife farms raising species including peacocks, civet cats, porcupines, snakes, ostriches, wild geese and boar have only now been shut down across China in the wake of this current coronavirus, in a move that has exposed the sheer size of the industry. Until a few weeks ago wildlife farming was still being promoted by the Chinese government as a way for rural Chinese people to earn money. But the Covid-19 outbreak, which has now led to around 112,000 deaths and 2 million known infections, is thought to have originated in wildlife sold at a market again in Wuhan in early December.
Much of the meat from the wildlife trade is sold for medicine and other uses, through online sites or to “wet markets” like the one where the Covid-19 outbreak is thought to have started
in Wuhan. The timing could not have been worse. Just as the disease began to be noticed Chinese people began their visits to meet up with families for the Chinese New Year, as well
as some going to China for the celebrations from countries across the globe, to return a few days later with an unwanted guest deep within their bodies.
The ease with which we can travel huge distances around the world has brought us face to face with the stark reality of how simple it is in the 21st century for a pandemic to spread. This could have been avoided. Respect for a nation’s historic cultural traditions is important, so it is difficult to criticise the Chinese for engaging in alternative medicinal practices that have been going on for centuries. But it will be important to see what response they now make to the selling of wildlife in ‘wet markets’. The Chinese sent a large contingent of medical staff and supplies to Italy to help. They continue to supply PPE supplies to us. But they do need to get their own house in order. When this is over there are many questions to ask and answer.