KUALA LUMPUR – The search for the source of the novel coronavirus has tabbed a new animal candidate: the pangolin, a long-snouted, scaly, ant-eating mammal found in parts of Asia and Africa. Scientists in Guangzhou, China, announced data last week suggesting that the notoriously cute animals, valued as a source of food and as a traditional medicinal ingredient in China, carried viruses that are 99 percent similar to the virus now named COVID-19.
That data has been neither published nor confirmed, but the mere suggestion is turning attention back to China’s “wet markets” and the wild animals for sale in many of them. Since December, evidence has strongly suggested that something wild infected humans with the virus at one such market in central Wuhan, leading to the current outbreak.
In response, the Chinese government implemented a national crackdown on the wildlife trade, especially in places where food is bought and sold. Yet even if this crackdown succeeds, it won’t eliminate the public health threat from China’s demand for wild animals, which will only go underground. Fixing that will require a shift in how governments around the world view the global wildlife trade. What was once seen as a conservation and criminal justice issue must now be treated as a global health and security issue as well.
China’s demand for wild animals to use as food varies from region to region. A 2014 survey of consumers in five Chinese cities found that 83 percent of respondents in Guangzhou had eaten wildlife in the last year; in Shanghai, it was 14 percent. Overall, demand is in decline, with 52.7 percent respondents agreeing that wildlife should not be consumed, up from 42.7 percent in 2004. But those numbers still represent tens of millions of consumers.
Meanwhile, traditional Chinese medicine, which utilizes wild and domesticated animal products, is a $60 billion global industry and is growing with the support of the Chinese government (and the World Health Organization). As recently as 2016, Chinese pharmaceutical companies received permits to use the scales of roughly 73,000 pangolins. The scales, which are made of the same substance as fingernails, are believed to have medicinal properties and are the primary reason that pangolins are critically endangered.
Most governments, including China’s, have viewed and regulated the wildlife trade as a conservation issue, if it’s regulated at all. In recent years, public health authorities have started to take an interest in the wildlife trade, too, and for good reason. Wildlife is responsible for 70 percent of all emerging diseases, including SARS, HIV and the H5N1 influenza, commonly known as bird flu. Not all of those outbreaks happened in China, of course. In 2003, the first reported occurrence of monkeypox outside of Africa likely happened because legally imported African rodents infected prairie dogs in a U.S. pet warehouse, and subsequently infected people.
Nonetheless, China is more susceptible than most places. It is the world’s biggest market in a global illegal wildlife trade that could be worth in excess of $20 billion. Last April, Singapore seized 26 tons of pangolin scales worth $77 million sourced from Nigeria. The clandestine nature of such trades, and the difficulty of tracking them, means that public health authorities must struggle to find the source of a zoonotic infection when it emerges.
By contrast, public health authorities in the United States, the world’s largest importer of legal wildlife (mostly for the pet trade), might also struggle to find the source an emerging disease, but at least they have a paper trail.
The good news is that the wet markets are turning for the better. China’s meat supply chain is becoming more secure as companies and consumers transition to shopping in grocery stores. Wild animals, especially illegally caught ones, are unlikely to be found in the butcher’s case. The bad news is that grocery stores may only serve to drive the trade in wild animals underground, where it becomes even more difficult to track — and potentially far more threatening to public health. Authorities in China and elsewhere can’t be content with simply shutting down the wet markets and other wildlife trade venues. They need to do more.
The most important step is to view the wildlife trade as a public health threat, as well as a conservation threat. That requires enforcement and public education. A decade ago, China successfully reduced the slaughter of sharks for their fins (used in soup) via a celebrity-led campaign that focused on conservation.
A similar campaign that leverages the Chinese public’s long-standing concerns over food safety should be just as successful. Once established, the campaign should be extended to the regions from which China sources wildlife, including Southeast Asia and Africa. The WHO, in concert with the United Nations, is ideally positioned to promote it, and public health funding agencies globally should be keen to fund it.
At the same time, China and other countries should invest their intelligence resources into uncovering and prosecuting wildlife trafficking rings. Last year, the Financial Action Task Force, an intergovernmental organization that fights money laundering, agreed to a Chinese government proposal to focus on money laundering linked to the illegal wildlife trade. Other countries, especially source and destination countries in Asia and Africa, should cooperate with all-too-rare prosecutions of local offenders.
None of these efforts will reduce the threat of pandemics in the short term. But in time, they should make life safer for humans and pangolins alike, and reduce the risk of the next plague emerging from a wet market.
Bloomberg columnist Adam Minter is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”