Stop unregulated bushmeat trade to avoid the next Coronavirus
Updated: Jun 25, 2021
Coronavirus is wreaking havoc worldwide. Most Americans are stuck in their homes, concentrating on their families and maybe their local communities. With 1423 cases per 1M people, the US has one of the highest rates of contamination globally – so focusing locally is natural. But my mind drifts to Africa where medical facilities are lacking and the number of doctors per 1000 people is the lowest in the world (https://www.nationmaster.com/). This is a recipe for disaster. The virus arrived in Africa late relative to other regions. Maybe with more time to prepare proactive measures can reduce mortality. At least some countries, like Gabon, rapidly implemented measures learned from the recent Ebola epidemic, taking travelers temperatures as they descend from airplanes, quarantining incomers in their homes, and shutting borders much earlier than the US. It’s difficult to be optimistic, though, when the starting point for preparation is much further back. The Central African Republic has three ventilators to serve the entire country while South Sudan, with a population of 12 million people, has only four (https://www.devex.com/news/these-countries-have-only-a-handful-of-ventilators-96970).
Incredibly, the Coronavirus was expected by epidemiologists, by ecologists, and by Hollywood. We’ve seen this movie before – literally. The 2011 movie, Contagion, eerily mirrors our current situation, even predicting that the virus would come from China. Take a glance at the list of epidemics and pandemics (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_epidemics_and_pandemics). A few of the highlights include the Ebola outbreak in 2018, the Zika outbreak in 2015-16, and the 2009-10 swine flu. Mass media hardly pays attention to more localized epidemics like cholera, measles, and dengue.
Like Coronavirus, some of the recent epidemics are zoonoses, diseases that jump from animals to humans. Ironically, we open the floodgates to zoonotic disease through habitat destruction, encroachment into wild lands, and hunting. All these lead to the comingling of humans and wild animals. Unlike regulated hunting in the US, with seasons and licenses that are mostly respected, hunting in much of the tropical world is a daily occurrence without enforced limits. Much of this hunting is driven by need to feed oneself and one’s family or to earn money through the sale of ‘bushmeat’. This is understandable. But hunting, particularly commercial hunting, can quickly turn unsustainable and can have tragic effects for the environment, for local access to protein, and for global health. Like the ‘wet’ market in China, the reputed origin of Coronavirus, where live animals wait in cages for sale and slaughter, dead animals and their parts are often sold in open markets throughout the tropics. Wherever it occurs, the handling and consumption of bushmeat is a recipe for zoonoses.
Animals caught and killed in the tropics are transported by the thousands to other regions. China, for example, has been an increasingly important economic and development actor in many African nations, facilitating the flood of wildlife and wildlife parts from one continent to another. To its credit, the Chinese government has instituted laws to stop the importation and marketing of wild animals, but to date these have had lukewarm success. While we don’t yet know the vector of the Coronavirus, the pangolin, a scaly anteater inhabiting the Asian and African tropics, is hypothesized to be the culprit (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/05/opinion/coronavirus-china-pangolins.html). Whether the vector came from tropical Asia or tropical Africa, the only way to stop the next viral pandemic is to get serious about managing wildlife populations, hunting and trade. If we don’t, where will the next Coronavirus originate?