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Worst pandemic on the horizon, unless the world deals with wildlife markets

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The continued existence of wildlife markets, which are seen as potential breeding grounds for the spread of harmful viruses, means that it is only a matter of time before the world is hit by another pandemic. deadly, according to some scientists.

“If we don’t deal with it, there is nothing to say that we can’t have another epidemic in eighteen months, and it could be worse,” said Kerry Bowman, assistant professor and bioethicist at the University of Toronto.it is Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

Scientists believe the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 disease emerged from one of these wildlife markets also known as “wet markets” in the Chinese city of Wuhan, possibly through of an infected bat.

Bats are just one of the animals sold in these markets, where customers come to buy livestock and domestic wildlife, including pigs, chickens, civets, bamboo rats, porcupines and pangolins.

But Bowman said closing these markets could be extremely difficult, as these cultural practices date back thousands of years and are now part of a multi-billion dollar global industry.

Overflow event

Bowman said the main concern in these markets is an overflow event, when viruses are transmitted from one species to another and then are transmitted to humans.

On very rare occasions, humans will transmit this virus from one person to another, which has happened with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and, by all indications, with COVID-19.

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“Mathematically, this is not a common phenomenon. But if you really wanted to create a laboratory-type experiment to design the conditions for an overflow event, you would create the kind of wildlife market you have in China” said Bowman.

In a recent video message on COVID-19, famous primatologist Jane Goodall warned that the close relationships between humans and wildlife in these markets “have sparked terror and misery for the new viruses.”

SARS may have spread to humans through wild mammals. Ebola outbreaks in West and Central Africa are believed to originate from bats, while Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is believed to be caused by camels.

All of these infected animals were found in wildlife markets, where millions of people around the world still receive their food every day.

Not just in China

Bowman said China is not the only culprit, nor is Asia “the only continent in the world that has this challenge.”

“But it is particularly tenacious in the Far East and spreads to Vietnam, much of Southeast Asia, Indonesia,” he said.

Civet cats wait for food on a farm in Liuan, China. (Photos from China / Getty Images)

In February, China announced a ban on the trade and consumption of wildlife, but it also imposed severe restrictions following the SARS epidemic in 2003, only to see the industry slowly reappear. Many environmentalists say that such bans contain loopholes.

Selling wildlife is “an important part of the economy. And it has created an economic opportunity for many people,” said Bowman.

There are different estimates, but Bowman said the size of the global wildlife trade is between $ 7 billion and $ 23 billion a year.

Animals in unsanitary conditions

Bowman, who is researching this issue, said on his last visit to a market in Wuhan that he had 57 species of animals, about two-thirds of which were wild, mostly of Asian origin. The cages were stacked on top of each other, in unsanitary conditions.

He said the operators had “high-powered pipes that explode around urine, feces, blood from one cage to the next to the next.”

When it comes to general concepts of infectious disease, wildlife markets are “a perfect opportunity for mixing bacteria and viruses as well as transmission to other groups,” said Jason Stull, assistant professor at Atlantic Veterinary College of the University of Prince Edward Island.

Not only that, but stress and malnutrition reduce the animals’ immune systems and potentially make the problem worse, said Stull. For example, a stressed animal may be more likely to spread higher amounts of virus.

“All of these things can probably contribute to the back and forth movement of disease,” said Stull.

Many infectious diseases related to wildlife

According to the EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based organization that conducts scientific research on emerging infectious diseases, about three-quarters of all these diseases are somehow related to wildlife.

William Karesh, executive vice president for health and policy at the EcoHealth Alliance, said the current coronavirus epidemic has likely spread in two possible ways. It could have been a wild animal sold on the market which contaminated the market. It is also possible that a supplier on the market was infected elsewhere and then infected its customers.

The animals that end up on the market come from two places hunted in the wild or raised on farms.

WATCH | How bats can spread the new coronavirus

Bowman said there have been deep cultural roots in this industry for thousands of years of tradition of eating wild animals. In addition, animals are used for traditional Chinese medicine, luxury goods and the pet trade.

“What has really changed is that it has gone from occasional domestic use with emerging populations in combination with emerging wealth to a massive commercial enterprise,” said Bowman.

Emphasis should be placed on education

Karesh said ending these practices will take time, likely generations, and could only be done through education and helping countries improve their food systems.

He suggested that instead of banning all wildlife trade, countries should focus on animals that are more likely to have viruses that can be transmitted to humans such as rodents, bats and non-human primates.

He said the international community must tackle the growing and unsustainable use of wildlife, otherwise we “will continue to see pandemics”.

“There are three to five emerging diseases every year, and only by luck and by the grace of God … they don’t turn into pandemics every time.”

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