By Barry Kent MacKay, General Manager
As I sit in my home office, dutifully socially isolated from the rest of humanity, I find myself growing weary of the “deniers”. And I don’t only mean the dwindling numbers of conspiracy theorists claiming the COVID-19 pandemic that is imposing my self-isolation, as if it were some vast “socialist” plot to destroy capitalism and free enterprise, but also those who want to return to “business as usual”, the very thing that got us into this costly, and dangerous, mess in the first place. I finally decided to respond to one, not to change the minds of those who wrote it, but to provide an analysis of their views.
The authors are Dan Challender, Amy Hinsley, Diogo Veríssimo and Michael `T Sas-Rolfes. It was posted, today, April 9, 2020, online, on something called The Conservation (https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-why-a-blanket-ban-on-wildlife-trade-would-not-be-the-right-response-135746), hereafter called “Challender et al” or “the article”.
There is one brief caveat before I get started. I don’t want to confuse their conspiracy with others, including the one that suggest the coronavirus was created in a supposedly bio-secure lab and somehow got away. There have been more than enough zoonotic diseases of epidemic potential to give credence to the likelihood that the most widely accepted theory is valid, and Challender et al and I share that assumption.
The article apparently addresses a letter (https://www.hsi.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Open-letter-WHO-Wildlife-Trade-and-Covid-19-FINAL-.pdf) that calls for changes that would lead to the elimination of “wet markets” and the reduction or elimination of other practices we know to threaten health and commerce by being sources of pandemics such as the one now underway — COVID-19. This document shall hereafter be referred to as “the letter”.
The article begins:
“The early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic have been linked to a “wet” market in Wuhan, in the Hubei province of eastern China. Wet markets are common in Asia, Africa and elsewhere, selling fresh fruit and vegetables, poultry, fresh meat and live animals, including wildlife.
Reports initially indicated that the coronavirus which causes COVID-19 may have been transmitted to people from wildlife at this wet market because of unsanitary conditions.”
As defined by Challender et al, wet markets are ubiquitous on every continent north of Antarctica, including the grocery stores where I shop in Markham, Ontario, Canada. But they don’t all necessarily sell wildlife. Nor, apart from issues of sanitation, do they normally crowd animals of any kind into incredibly stressful densities under filthy conditions. Indeed, it would be illegal to do so. Supporting such regulations serves a range of social issues; it is not as revolutionary as Challender et al seem to think. They continue:
“The pandemic has led to some wildlife conservation organisations to call for blanket bans on wildlife trade on public health grounds. They include bans on commercial trade in wildlife for human consumption and the closure of these markets. More extreme calls from more than 200 organisations include ending the keeping, breeding, domestication and use of all wildlife, which also covers traditional medicine.”
I know of no such demands in the letter, nor are any referenced. Deeper into the text the authors implicitly define “wildlife” as including all species of wild plants and animals. The letter does not really address plants.
There has long been a conservation effort to oppose trafficking in species of both plants and animals threatened with endangerment or extinction by such use, and the efforts fall into two broad categories, those directed at domestic use (internal within the country where the animal or plant is native), and those directed at international trade. Put simplistically, it is widely agreed that reducing the current rate of extinctions is a good idea for many reasons I won’t belabour here (see https://www.conservation.org/blog/why-is-biodiversity-important/). But even if you disagree with the premise that reduced biodiversity is to be avoided, and that the value of utilization trumps the value of biodiversity, utilization itself is lost if the species is eliminated. I will address “traditional medicine” below. The article continues:
“But blanket bans are unlikely to benefit people or wildlife, and are unfeasible because they overlook the complexity of the wildlife trade.
The COVID-19 outbreak should not be used opportunistically to prescribe global wildlife trade policy. A more appropriate response would be to improve wildlife trade regulation with a direct focus on human health.”
Challender et al may not be distinguishing between wildlife trade and wet markets, either as they define those terms, or by limiting their description to concerns about the origins of COVID-19, and the origin of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the disease when it enters the human population. Having worked with and even for some of the “…more than 200 organizations…” whose views the authors challenge, I can assure you that the ones I am acquainted with are, indeed, extremely familiar with the “complexity of the wildlife trade”, both legal and illegal. In fact, they are often the primary source of information on that trade! The issue is not the trade, per se, but the dangers posed to consumers, not to mention industry and commerce, by wet markets featuring large numbers of wild-by-nature (undomesticated) animals in close confinement under hideously crowded, cruel and often absurdly unsanitary conditions.
No reason is given why the most major threat to emerge (after a series of similar, smaller-scale such threats provided ample warning, see below) from such conditions should not be used “opportunistically”, not to “prescribe wildlife trade policy”, which the letter does not do, but to reduce or eliminate the cause of what we are all experiencing! So far as trade regulations go, that is exactly what is being done, undoubtedly to the benefit of human health. The article continues:
“Wildlife is used globally on a daily basis, from medicinal plants and edible fungi, to wild meat in Europe, North America, Southern Africa and elsewhere. Wildlife trade enables people in many parts of the world to meet their basic needs and can provide livelihood benefits from harvesting or farming.”
The letter referred to is not opposing trade in domestic animals for human consumption, nor sustainable use of the products of traditional fisheries, and certainly does not address edible plants beyond concerns for their survival as species for the reasons given. Even if no value is placed on either biodiversity or the ability of a plant species simply to exist, if it has only commercial value that value is lost upon commercial or actual extinction. With regard the current pandemic, while some plant species are toxic to humans and should not be eaten, not one has ever been implicated with the transmission of dangerous infectious viruses into the human population. But more to the point, how on earth can a model that contributes to pandemics, has done so before and will, if not stopped, do so again, meet the basic needs of people who are dead, or whose businesses are ruined, an outcome that is costing lives thousands of kilometers away. How can destroying businesses from small farmers’ markets to vast international conglomerates world-wide, be a better business model than the alternative? Surely “harvesting or farming” should not necessitate the degree of social disruption and human misery now occurring. The article continues:
“Despite the way it is often presented, wildlife trade involves far more than animals harvested in tropical regions and sold in China. It includes species from land, freshwater and marine habitats, including fisheries, in production systems ranging from wild harvesting to captive breeding. It takes place at local and international levels, includes legal and illegal, sustainable and unsustainable components, and is measurable in billions of dollars annually.”
The only implication the letter recognizes “…animals harvested in tropical regions and sold in China…”, is untrue. What is being addressed is a situation that has led to serious epidemics and pandemics, and most particularly the current pandemic, whose cost in lives and economy far exceeds any conceivable health or economic benefits derived from continuing the causative endeavor. That said, the article continues:
“Unquestionably, wildlife trade regulations require review in response to COVID-19 for public health reasons. However, while bans may appear to be a logical solution, their impact on public health cannot be assumed to be positive. They could also do more harm than good for biodiversity.
Typically, prohibition does not deter all traders in marketplaces. This would mean that trade in some products would likely continue illegally.
Traders would be motivated by financial profits, with an increased risk of trade being controlled by organised crime.”
Here we come to an old and familiar argument, that, with very few exceptions, has been proven wrong numerous times. The argument is that the value of the resources assures both the legality of its trade and its protection. However, the authors apparently have failed to realize that the letter is calling for a ban on “live wildlife markets”. No indication is given in the article, nor can I think of any, that such a ban would in any way “do more harm than good for biodiversity”. What is different from recommending that governments “address the potential risks to human health from trade in wildlife…” as the letter does, and saying, as the article does, “Unquestionably, wildlife trade regulations require review in response to COVID-19 for public health reasons.”?
What is most assuredly not in the public interest, nor of any benefit to the commercial sector, is anything that could cause what is currently being experienced, worldwide. Illegal trade already occurs, driven by market forces not satisfied by trade that is sustainable – demand exceeds legal supply – or because of enhanced competitive benefit – selling products derived from poaching is more profitable than selling those obtained legally – or some combination of both. But the letter is not even addressing sustainability, the attainment of which being exactly what the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) is designed to achieve. The article continues:
“Bans may not stigmatise consumption either, especially where products are socially desirable, meaning consumer demand for many products would persist. This is a public health concern because, unregulated, such trade would likely be clandestine and, if unsanitary, could pose the risk of transmitting disease from animals to humans. Bans, especially where they remove legal supply options, such as captive breeding, could raise perceptions of scarcity, and drive up black market prices and increase incentives for poaching. This could accelerate the exploitation and extinction of species in the wild.“
The purpose of the ban is not to stigmatize consumption, per se, but to stop a process that has created worldwide death, vast economic loss and social chaos. The means by which this horror has been unleashed is what the first recommendation addresses, “…a permanent ban on live wildlife markets, drawing an unequivocal link between these markets and their proven threats to human health.” Banning the process that created the problem after the contagion has been loosed upon the world, as has been done, as I write, by China and Vietnam, does not protect us to the degree that stopping that process in the first place would have done. We can’t turn back the clock but we don’t want a repeat of the current situation.
Where I think the authors of the document may be more accurate in their negative assessment of the letter is the demand in the letter to exclude “wildlife”, including captive bred species, from an endorsement of “traditional medicine”. Medicine is supposed to alleviate, not cause, illness, especially such dangerous illnesses as those that have derived from wet markets featuring wildlife. The letter’s authors and those endorsing it do not call for a ban on plant species since plants being sold in markets, however filthy or crowded, have not been shown to harbor viruses that lead to infectious viral diseases in humans. Plants do not harbor infectious zoonotic diseases.
In addition to asking governments to assist “…in awareness-raising activities to clearly inform of the risks…” of what we are now experiencing – a request that hardly seems radical or unwarranted – the letter asks governments to “Support and encourage initiatives that deliver alternative sources of protein to subsistence consumers of wild animals, in order to further reduce the risk to human health.”
Sadly, as the Ebola virus tragically demonstrated, those risks can be utmost in locations where medical assistance may be limited and ineffectual and yet the availability of safe protein sources either low, unaffordable or unrecognized. It is what causes the emergence of seriously dangerous infectious diseases to cause terrible harm that should be stopped, not what does not, and what does not cause those trans-species viral infections should be encouraged. The article continues:
“The outcome for wildlife economies would also be uncertain. For example, the wildlife “breeding economy” in China is estimated to involve 14 million people and be worth more than US$74 billion annually. The fate of animals under human care and the people employed in these industries would require consideration. In China, bamboo rat and badger farmers are to be compensated and given grants for new businesses following the closure of almost 3,000 farms in response to COVID-19.“
“Wildlife economies” are not, of course, limited to wet markets, nor to those conditions which pose the kind of terrible health and economic damage now playing out across the world. But those that do should not persist. It is possible to live a lifetime without need to consume a badger or bamboo rat. The US$74 billion cited as how much the wildlife “breeding economy” is worth to China is but a fraction of the dollar cost of the current pandemic, (https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/03/coronavirus-covid-19-cost-economy-2020-un-trade-economics-pandemic/), now assessed to be at least one trillion USD and the next such event could easily be far worse. Indeed, the current situation could even become far worse since it was learned, April 9th, from a genetic network analysis done by the University of Cambridge (see: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/04/200409085644.htm), that the virus causing COVID-19 has undergone (and therefore presumably could still be undergoing) significant mutations, which in turn appear to determine its effects on humans. As the summary states, “The first use of phylogenetic techniques shows the `ancestral’ virus genome closest to those in bats was not Wuhan’s predominant virus type. The study charts the ‘incipient supernova’ of COVID-through genetic mutations as it spread from China and Asia to Australia, Europe and North America.” A danger that increases on a logarithmic scale poses existential risk far beyond any benefit derived from the source of that danger.
Much of the market for products derived from captive-bred wildlife is also served by illegal trade, as noted above, and is fashion or fad-driven, thus ephemeral and potentially economically volatile. The products are often used for fashion luxuries and novelties. From the farms through to market and slaughtering and shipping facilities there is potential, several times recognized, and now horrifically so, for an international assault on human welfare and the economy. How much worse must it get before we remove root causation? Demand for leather and other products from species such as snakes and crocodiles encourages consumption in “wet markets”, particularly but not exclusively in underdeveloped and impoverished countries in conditions that exacerbate the likelihood of triggering more pandemics. As bad as COVID-19 is, such viruses could be even worse. Additionally, the Worldwide Fund for Nature has identified wildlife trade as second only to habitat loss as a threat to the survival of species. This is occurring at a time when extinction rates significantly exceed anything seen at any time in human history. We must act.
The 22,000 legal captive wildlife breeding facilities in China and others like them elsewhere must be seen as the failure they are, earning far less than their ultimate cost to society worldwide. The article continues:
“To be effective, bans would need to be largely in step with local social norms and well enforced. But this is unrealistic in many parts of the world where law enforcement is cripplingly under-resourced in terms of technology and manpower. Local people may also challenge the legitimacy of any bans. Requiring agencies to enforce comprehensive bans in these circumstances would most likely overwhelm them.”
Claiming something as simplistic as a ban is unenforceable is tacit admission that it is not possible to enforce regulations that assure a healthy wet market to thereby mitigate the likelihood of yet another serious pandemic. The authors stated at the outset of the article, that instead of a ban, “A more appropriate response would be to improve wildlife trade regulation with a direct focus on human health.”
But the problem is at source! A pair of cowboy boots or a belt or purse made from the skin of a pangolin is, itself, not a viable creator of deadly viral infection, but we now know that the risk is fueled by the demand for such utterly unnecessary products and we know that the risk derives at the production end, in the wet markets and crowded, unsanitary animal husbandry serving both the wet markets and other sources of income.
We can’t know that “agencies” would be “overwhelmed” by the need to enforce such a ban, but what we do know is that health care systems, even in the wealthiest country on earth, but also in the poorest, and a great many in between, have been “overwhelmed”, a failure measured in human lives and loss of essential incomes. The theoretical concern on a relatively small scale should not surpass the actual concern now occurring on a huge scale. The article continues:
“Even where there are strong laws and enforcement, implementation is challenging and illegal trade still occurs frequently, such as the harvesting and trafficking of the European eel in Europe. It is also unlikely that law enforcement would receive the financial investment necessary to enforce bans in the long term, due to political constraints on spending and other more urgent priorities.”
Even though there are strong laws and enforcement protecting our money, robbery still frequently occurs. That laws don’t prevent crime, is a given, but that they reduce crime is also a given.
The European eel is indeed poached and smuggled, but without the levels of protection it has been afforded, it could well be extinct. The annals of international conservation are replete with examples of species which, heading toward extinction, were saved from extinction by criminalizing the acts that were the causes of the problems. Such legally imposed conservation measures don’t always work, true, but they never work if not at least attempted.
The second sentence of the above quoted paragraph is speculative opinion, and suggests the authors are blind to the degree to which society overall is increasingly concerned about the ability of the earth to support us and our various endeavors. Education is key to understanding. To quote a recent statement by famed British primatologist and dedicated educator, Jane Goodall, “It is our disregard for nature and our disrespect of the animals we should share the planet with that has caused this pandemic, that was predicted long ago….It’s also the animals who are hunted for food, sold in markets in Africa or in the meat market for wild animals in Asia, especially China, and our intensive farms where we cruelly crowd together billions of animals around the world. These are the conditions that create the opportunity for the viruses to jump from animals across the species barrier to humans.” The article continues:
“Banning all wildlife trade is a knee-jerk and potentially self-defeating measure. A more appropriate response would be improving regulation of wildlife markets, especially those involving live animals. This should include full consideration of public health and animal welfare concerns to ensure there is low risk of future animal-to-human disease outbreaks.”
I am not sure how “knee-jerk” is to be defined. When something causes a massive calamity, such as the Great Depression or a world war, it is best, surely, to eliminate that something and do so quickly lest it reoccurs.
We tried, in spite of previous warnings, such as the outbreak of Marburg disease from bats that originated in Uganda and killed 478 people in 1967; or the Ebola virus in 1976, also from bats, that originated in the Democratic Republic of Congo and killed 14,693 people; or the Nipah viral infection, also from bats, that originated in Malaysia in 1999 and killed 256 people; or the one I most remember, the SARS epidemic, caused by a virus that went from bats to civets to humans and originated in China, in 2002, killing 774 people; or the H5N1 bird flu epidemic, from chickens, that also originated in China in 2003, killing 455 people; or the MERS virus of 2012, that originated in Saudi Arabia from Dromedaries, killing 858; or the H7N9 bird flu of 2013, that originated in China, from poultry, killing 616; or the A (H1N1) epidemic that originated from domestic pigs in the U.S. and Mexico, in 2009, killing between 123,000 and 203,000; or for that matter animal source seasonal flu, which kills hundreds of thousands of people, and now the ongoing COVID-19, which will prove to be one of the most deadly and costly of all since 1918, and one wonders just how it is “knee jerk” to eliminate the cause? Yes, of course one should “include full consideration of public health and welfare concerns to ensure there is low risk of future animal-to-human disease outbreaks”. But that is what the letter does. All that is to be “banned” is that which allows “an unequivocal link” to “proven threats to human health”. The article continues:
“This could be achieved by focusing on highest-risk species and improving conditions along supply chains and in markets, such as health and safety and sanitation, and regular animal health checks. These practices could draw on existing standards that apply to regulations for transporting live animals by air.”
The problem is that the degree of risk inherent to any one species can’t be established until after the fact. In the previously named recent epidemics, starting with Marburg in 1967, neither snakes nor pangolins have been implemented as a potential source of the epidemics. And yet both have been suggested to be the source of the current pandemic, with clarification still not firmly established as of time of writing.
Both domestic animals – pigs, Dromedaries and poultry – and animals wild by nature, such as bats, palm civets and wild birds, have been implicated as sources for various such diseases. HIV infection in humans came from chimpanzees, believed to have been in the form of simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) that mutated into a form deadly to humans, according to the AIDS Institute. The earliest known example in a human, dates back to 1959.
We can’t continue with business as usual. I understand the need for appreciation of cultural norms and practices different from our own. But that does not assume we all don’t have a role to play in serving the greater good, in sharing information, and in seeking improvement. There is no question that some traditional medicines can be efficacious in treating diseases, some can have a positive placebo effect and some can be harmful to patients, or produce an unwarranted assurance that precludes effective treatment (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-world-health-organization-gives-the-nod-to-traditional-chinese-medicine-bad-idea/). The alternative, often called “western” medicine, which depends on objective proof of effectiveness before being deemed “medicine”, can also produce mixed results. The value of “traditional medicine” as a means to affirm a cultural norm may be more important to the consumer than its ability to do what it is intended to do.
The whole issue is complex. But what is known is that Chinese wet markets are not “traditional” but rather a reaction to the mass starvations that occurred in China in the mid-20th century as a response of policies initiated by Mao-Zedong (see https://meaww.com/coronavirus-chinese-wet-markets-origin-history-1970-s-millions-died-of-starvation-under-mao-zedong). In other parts of the world similar stressors result in “bush meat” being marketed under similarly crowded and unsanitary conditions. This becomes both an international issue, and an international concern when the results lead to such costs in lives and commerce as is now being experienced. We have a right, a moral obligation, to seek remedy.