Coronavirus – have we learnt nothing?

| 28 January 2020
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Coronavirus – have we learnt nothing?

We’ve been here before – viruses jumping from animals to people – but we don’t seem to have learnt anything. 

On New Year’s Eve last year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) was informed of a cluster of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause in Wuhan City in the Hubei Province of China. In January of this year, the Wuhan novel coronavirus (WN-CoV) was identified as a new respiratory illness, previously unseen in humans. To try and contain this outbreak, over 20 million people in Wuhan and other cities have been placed on lock-down, with public transport being closed.

What is the situation internationally?

Most people affected are in China, but cases have been reported from other countries: Thailand, USA, Australia, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, South Korea, Japan, France, Vietnam, Nepal, Canada, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Germany and Bavaria. The number of total cases confirmed by China rose to 4,515 as of 27 January, up from 2,835 a day earlier. At the time of writing, 106 people have died, but if the virus is able to spread before symptoms show, it seems likely the death toll will rise considerably.

UPDATE February 7 2020: The outbreak has killed over 600 people in China and infected more than 31,000. The number of people infected could be much higher, as those with mild symptoms may not have been included. The World Health Organisation say there could be as many as 100,000. The mortality rate is thought to be around two per cent but could be lower because of the number of people not counted. Seasonal flu has a mortality rate below one per cent and is thought to cause about 400,000 deaths each year globally. The big difference is that we don’t yet have a vaccine for this new virus so the elderly and those with existing respiratory or immune problems may be vulnerable.

What are coronaviruses?

Coronaviruses are a common type of virus that cause mild illnesses, such as the common cold, but can cause more serious problems like severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Like flu, coronaviruses cause more severe symptoms in people with weakened immune systems, older people and those with long-term conditions like diabetes, cancer and chronic lung disease.

Where did it come from?

The new virus is thought to have originated in a crowded so-called ‘wet market’ in Wuhan, selling marmots, birds, dogs, pigs, badgers, rabbits, bats, snakes, wolf pups, cicadas, scorpions, bamboo rats, squirrels, foxes, salamanders, turtles, crocodiles and civet cats. Live wild and farmed animals are packed into crowded cages alongside each other – think of it as an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of infectious diseases.

Previous outbreaks

We’ve seen it before with HIV/AIDS, Ebola, Zika, avian influenza (bird flu) and SARS – all originating in animals. Ebola came from monkeys, infected by bats, then eaten by villagers living in the African bush. The 2003 SARS outbreak, which killed 774 people, was thought to be caused by an animal virus, again maybe from bats, which spread to civet cats and infected humans in the Guangdong province of southern China. Following this, there was a temporary ban on wild animal markets. However, these markets are trading again.

Repulsive places filled with caged, frightened souls

Juliet Gellatley, founder of Viva! and zoologist said: “Wet markets are called ‘wet’ because animals are often slaughtered in front of customers. They are repulsive places filled with caged, frightened souls – many captured illegally in the wild. Animals are skinned sending a cocktail of microorganisms into the air. The dreadful, cramped conditions and mix of wild and domestic terrified creatures, alongside the throngs of people choosing their victims is an epidemic in the making. We reap what we sow. The world must wake up and shun meat and all animal flesh and instead eat vegan. No cruelty. No cages. No fear. No blood. And no zoonoses. No brainer.”

A bat-snake hybrid

One theory is that the new coronavirus may also have originated in bats, but then transferred to snakes (both sold in the market) before jumping species to humans. Viruses from different species can combine when animals are kept in close proximity. Wet markets put a wide variety of live animals alongside large numbers of people – a ripe breeding ground for emerging viruses! Exposure to respiratory droplets, faeces or body fluids from animals, or from carcasses and raw meat, provides plenty of opportunity for new strains of viruses to infect humans. It is a perfect storm – a disaster of our own making.

The H5N1 bird flu virus that kills 60 per cent of those it infects, thankfully has a low infection rate – it’s hard to catch. This new coronavirus appears to be spreading relatively easily, but does not have such a high mortality rate. If the next virus to jump from animals to humans has a high mortality rate and is easily spread, we will be in big trouble!

Time to ban wildlife markets

Experts are now calling for the banning of wild animal markets worldwide – the sale of sometimes endangered species for human consumption is the cause of this new coronavirus outbreak and many other past epidemics. Of course it’s not just meat-eaters that are affected. Dr Jonathan Quick, Adjunct Professor of Global Health at the Duke Global Health Institute, says: “Traditional Chinese wet markets remain a threat to global health”.

There are currently no known cases of the virus in the UK, but it’s probably only be a matter of time. Public Health England has issued a guide to hospitals on symptoms and how to handle the virus and the NHS has been put on high alert as the country braces for the outbreak to hit.

Back in 2004, following the SARS outbreak, Professor Diana Bell from the University of East Anglia’s School of Biological Sciences warned: “A major lesson from SARS is that the underlying roots of newly emergent zoonotic diseases [from animals] 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.”

We are decimating wild landscapes, killing wild animals or caging them and sending them to market. Invading and disrupting ecosystems will inevitably shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. It’s high time we listened to the warnings and put a halt to wildlife markets. It’s time to go vegan!

About the author
Dr. Justine Butler
Justine joined Viva! in 2005 after graduating from Bristol University with a PhD in molecular biology. After working as a campaigner, then researcher and writer, she is now Viva!’s head of research and her work focuses on animals, the environment and health. Justine’s scientific training helps her research and write both in-depth scientific reports, such as White Lies and the Meat Report, as well as easy-to-read factsheets and myth-busting articles for consumer magazines and updates on the latest research. Justine also recently wrote the Vegan for the Planet guide for Viva!’s Vegan Now campaign.

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