Zoonotic Diseases of Mass Destruction

Stephen Wiggins Article 4 Comments

Banner image courtesy of artist Olaf Hajek and The New York Times Sunday Review

The ‘true’ cost of wildlife abuse – Coronavirus and the viruses to follow….

If we fail to understand and take care of the natural world, it can cause a breakdown of these systems and come back to haunt us in ways we know little about. A critical example is a developing model of infectious disease that shows that most epidemics — AIDS, Ebola, West Nile, SARS, Lyme disease and hundreds more that have occurred over the last several decades — don’t just happen. They are a result of things people do to nature – “The Ecology of Disease,” The New York Times, 14 July 2012


Unless action is taken (after decades of complacency and corruption) to end ill-considered wildlife trading and consumption, history will keep repeating itself – zoonosis (a disease which can be transmitted to humans from animals) sourced pandemics will continue to sweep the globe:

“Sixty percent of emerging infectious diseases that affect humans are zoonotic — they originate in animals. And more than two-thirds of those originate in wildlife…..Just an estimated 1 percent of wildlife viruses are known” – “The Ecology of Disease,” The New York Times, 14 July 2012

Such pandemics take human lives before their time, not to mention the trillions of dollars in economic disruption that has rippled out from the current coronavirus (COVID-19). The latter economic impact will inevitably put humans at risk of loss of income, poverty and further health risks as the economic fallout manifests itself (no doubt those most vulnerable in society will be hit far worse than those at the elite end of the spectrum).

Shanghai, China – November 9, 2014: People in a market in Pudong district.

There has been pressure on the World Health Organisation (WHO) (United Nations Environment Programme etc.) to act, in the form of open letters, such as “Live wild animal markets, human and animal health and biodiversity protection,“ 10 February 2020. But ‘Open letters’ alone are unlikely to have the required effect on ‘cultural’ norms within China for example, but also applies across swathes of Asia, such at Vietnam and beyond (eg. Ebola stemmed from African bushmeat markets) where live wildlife markets proliferate, unless decisive action is taken from high authority within China, the Asian and African regions:

Given the cultural importance of wild animal markets throughout Asia, Bowen doesn’t think any [‘wet’ live wildlife market] ban — should they occur — would be effective” – Dr. Dick Bowen, an infectious disease researcher and veterinarian, Colorado State University – “Tracking the spread of viruses in live animal markets by building one in a lab,” WikiNewsNet, 22 February 2020

As Peter Li (Associate Professor, University of Houston-Downtown) makes clear in the following extract from his recent article:

The outbreak of the COVID-19 is a wake-up call. President Xi Jinping acknowledged that this was the worst public health crisis since the founding of China’s Communist state in 1949. China has come to a crossroads in regard to ending the hijacking of the country’s national interest by the wildlife business sector. If the wildlife business interest is allowed to continue to hold public safety hostage, then the outbreak of future zoonotic diseases of mass destruction (DMD) like SARS and the COVID-19 is unavoidable” – “The COVID-19 epidemic and China’s wildlife business interest,” University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute, 12 March 2020

Because pandemics tend to hit hardest those countries that have the most fragile and underfunded healthcare systems, there is an inherent imbalance between need and purchasing power when it comes to vaccines” – “When will a coronavirus vaccine be ready?” The Observer, 15 March 2020

It should be a wake-up call to all. The clamour for a vaccine to the current COVID-19 strains (and the undoubted brawl that will ensue to obtain a vaccine if/when it becomes available) will be in vain if action is not taken to eliminate the risk of follow on zoonotic diseases – maybe ones with even far more devastating potential than COVID-19 emanating from the same ‘wet’ live wildlife markets:

Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Market, where COVID-19 originated, had a section for selling wild animals. This part of the market was filthy, smelly and chaotic. Cages of animals which had either been caught in the wild or bred in captivity – many of them lethargic, sick, and dying with open wounds caused during their capture and transport – were stacked one on top of another. The animals inside the lower cages were soaked in the blood, excrement and urine of the animals incarcerated above. Carcasses of slaughtered animals were strewn on the ground, allowing blood to flow indiscriminately. Suffering was everywhere. Traders were left to their own devices and could not care less about the animals. The market was like an independent kingdombeyond the reach of the laws of the People’s Republic of China” – The COVID-19 epidemic and China’s wildlife business interest,” University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute, 12 March 2020

[Update]  “Diseases are more likely to travel further and faster than before, which means we must be faster in our responses. It needs investments, change in human behaviour, and it means we must listen to people at community levels…..We can’t predict where the next pandemic will come from, so we need mitigation plans to take into account the worst possible scenarios……The only certain thing is that the next one will certainly come” – Brian Bird, a research virologist at the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine One Health Institute -“‘Tip of the iceberg’: is our destruction of nature responsible for Covid-19?,” The Guardian, 18 March 2020

[Update] “Although stories illustrated with pictures of wild animals as “the source” of deadly outbreaks might suggest otherwise, wild animals are not especially infested with deadly pathogens, poised to infect us….But speculation about which wild creature originally harbored the virus [coronavirus] obscures a more fundamental source of our growing vulnerability to pandemics: the accelerating pace of habitat loss….But that’s not the fault of wild animals….. The problem is the way that cutting down forests and expanding towns, cities, and industrial activities creates pathways for animal microbes to adapt to the human body” –  “Think Exotic Animals Are to Blame for the Coronavirus? Think Again,” The Nation, 16 March 2020

[Update] “Starting in the 1990s, as part of its economic transformation, China ramped up its food production systems to industrial scale. One side effect of this, as anthropologists Lyle Fearnley and Christos Lynteris have documented, was that smallholding farmers were undercut and pushed out of the livestock industry. Searching for a new way to earn a living, some of them turned to farming “wild” species that had previously been eaten for subsistence only. Wild food was formalised as a sector, and was increasingly branded as a luxury product. But the smallholders weren’t only pushed out economically. As industrial farming concerns took up more and more land, these small-scale farmers were pushed out geographically too – closer to uncultivable zones. Closer to the edge of the forest, that is, where bats and the viruses that infect them lurk. The density and frequency of contacts at that first interface increased, and hence, so did the risk of a spillover” – Is factory farming to blame for coronavirus?, ” The Observer, 28 March 2020

Of course zoonosis is not a new phenomenon even within ‘legal’ international wildlife trade routes to Asia – for example, the ‘lion bone trade‘ (a by-product of the canned hunting/captive breeding industry, an industry that has no moral, or ethical relevance and lacks credible conservation credentials) perpetuated by South Africa has no formal health testing of its ‘product,’ even when lion bones are known to potentially contain tuberculosis (TB) with the risk of passing of TB to humans and into the human food chain (reference ‘”Roadmap for Zoonotic Tuberculosis,” World Health Organisation and “Dying for a Myth,”  Linda Park, Voice4Lions).


The international body that sanctions and regulates such ‘legal’ trade is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). However, not only has CITES proven to be a body that promotes such trade when it clearly has human health risks and detrimental species conservation risks, CITES has also proven completely ineffective in enforcing its own decisions when wildlife abuses become too obvious to ignore. For example the CITES 2007 decision to shut down commercial tiger breeding and exploitation has clearly lacked enforcement and punishment for non-compliance. CITES itself also suffers from poor technology (in comparison with today’s business world), where by CITES still relies on a paper trail to regulate international trade, a system clearly open to corruption and abuse.

The current coronavirus epidemic is indeed a wake-up call to many – but in terms of wildlife trading and exploitation, coronavirus serves to illustrate a world in which wildlife abuse in a ‘wet’ market in China is a clear risk to global human health.

CITES is not in the right ethical, moral, or transparent space, lacking the capability and will to enforce the required changes (in fact, CITES would seem to be a trading club that by default fuels abhorrent wildlife abuses such as the ‘lion bone trade’).

[Update] “In a growing sign that global organisations are embarrassed by the emergence of zoonotic diseases in traded animals, Cites, the body which regulates the international trade of animals, refused to be drawn into the growing debate about the origins of Covid-19.

In a terse statement it said: “Matters regarding zoonotic diseases are outside of Cites’s mandate and the Secretariat does not have the competence to make comments on the recent news on the possible links between human consumption of wild animals and Covid-19” – “Human impact on wildlife to blame for spread of viruses, says study,” The Guardian, 8 April 2020

In terms of coronavirus, the only apparent international action taken via CITES so far is “China – Urgent measures regarding wildlife trade regulation,” CITES 5 March 2020.

However, the ‘measures’ announced by China in the referenced CITES notice is limited to forbidding “..food..” consumption of wildlife (captive, or wild sourced), which does not encompass the incorporation of wildlife and derivatives within Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), where TCM has little proven efficacy, but incorporates lion, rhino, tigerpangolindonkey etc. sourced derivatives. TCM consumption also has significant zoonosis risks, where TCM ‘potions’ are often concocted through unregulated and illicit means, threatening endangered species’ conservation, for example:

The paradox: farms created to protect wild tigers from poaching have fuelled a demand for tiger products, which in turn has increased the number of tigers being poached. The solution is exacerbating the problem. And the market where more tigers are consumed than anywhere else? China“ -“Hunting the traffickers: How we’ve failed to stop the international tiger trade,” The Independent, 26 February 2020

Unless international inter-governmental action focuses on the ‘ground-zero’ (wildlife exploitation and abuse) causes of coronavirus and not just the resulting, global human health fallout, then wildlife abuses will continue to proliferate – increasing the risk of the next human health catastrophe stemming from ‘wet’ wildlife markets, unregulated and ill-advised wildlife consumption (including TCM). Zoonosis risks are not going to magically go away of their own accord.

Only a foolhardy species would risk allowing history to keep repeating itself and expecting different results. It’s indeed time for the world to wake-up and act. Now is the time to apply pressure for all wildlife/animal abuse to (literally to some extent) be put under the micro-scope after decades of complacency – if not now, then when?


Further Reading

Another deadly pandemic seems inevitable – but there is a way to avoid it,” The Guardian, 4 July 2023

Be warned: the next deadly pandemic is not inevitable, but all the elements are in place,” The Guardian, 8 February 2023

Covid origin studies say evidence points to Wuhan market,” BBC News, 26 July 2022

How our abuse of nature makes pandemics like covid-19 more likely,” New Scientist, 3 March 2021

‘The vaccine is only half the story’: If a cure is found, the world must be ready for the challenges that follow,The Independent, 4 May 2020 

Human impact on wildlife to blame for spread of viruses, says study,” The Guardian, 8 April 2020

Global Shifts in mammalian population trends reveal key predictors of virus spillover risk,” The Royal Society Publishing, 8 April 2020

Wildlife trade, COVID-19 and zoonotic disease risks: shaping the response,” TRAFFIC, 6 April 2020

Ban wildlife markets to avert pandemics, says UN biodiversity chief,” The Guardian, 6 April 2020

Coronavirus: Bronx Zoo tiger tests positive for Covid-19,” The Guardian, 6 April 2020

DON’T BLAME WILDLIFE FOR CORONAVIRUS – The coronavirus pandemic sweeping across the world is causing physical, social and economic disruption on an unprecedented scale,” Born Free Foundation

The race to find a coronavirus treatment has one major obstacle: big pharma,” The Guardian, 2 April 2020

Is factory farming to blame for coronavirus?,” The Observer, 28 March 2020

Coronavirus outbreak It takes a whole world to create a new virus, not just China,” The Guardian 25 March 2020


Covid-19 is nature’s wake-up call to complacent civilisation,” The Guardian, 25 March 2020

Unbelievable: Chinese Gov’t recommends injections containing bear bile to treat coronavirus,” Environmental Investigation Agency, 23 March 2020

The South African Captive Bred Lion Industry and Associated Global Health Risks,” EMS Foundation Letter and event, 21 March 2020:



COVID-19: The Wildlife Trade and Human Disease,” Scientific American, 19 March 2020

This is another in our series of coronavirus episodes of Scientific American’s Science Talk, posted on March 19, 2020. I’m Steve Mirsky. In early March, the prime minister of Vietnam directed the government to draft a directive to prohibit wildlife trade and consumption, to be submitted to him by April 1, 2020. In February China took similar actions. To find out more about the wildlife trade and its relationship to the current coronavirus outbreak, I called Christian Walzer. He’s the executive director of global health at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

‘Tip of the iceberg’: is our destruction of nature responsible for Covid-19?,” The Guardian, 18 March 2020

Billion-dollar wildlife industry in Vietnam under assault as law drafted to halt trading,” The Guardian, 18 March 2020

Coronavirus and the ‘Pangolin Effect’: Increased exposure to wildlife poses health, biosafety and global security risks,” World Bank, 17 March 2020

Coronavirus has finally made us recognise the illegal wildlife trade is a public health issue,” The Conversation, 17 March 2020

Think Exotic Animals Are to Blame for the Coronavirus? Think Again,” The Nation, 16 March 2020

Trump’s attempt to buy a coronavirus vaccine shows why big pharma needs to change,” The Guardian, 16 March 2020

Profit is what drives decision-making in the pharmaceuticals industry. It’s why we don’t have drugs to treat diseases such as tuberculosis, which kill millions of the world’s poor every year – and it’s also why we aren’t closer to finding a vaccine for Covid-19″

COVID-19: Will African governments now crack down on illegal wildlife trade?,” Africa Geographic, 16 March 2020

Commentary: No, China’s fresh food markets did not cause coronavirus [but the ‘wildlife’ market sections did],” Los Angeles Times, 11 March 2020

Beyond meat that tastes good, at least to someone, an interest in exotic meats is rooted in homology beliefs extending back to “The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classics,” which codified the medicinal philosophy more than 2,000 years ago; the idea that eating exotics confers wealth and status on the buyer; and the belief that certain wild animal parts have therapeutic effects (pangolin meat relieving rheumatism, for example). Weak legal controls push the sale of even the less exotic meats such as venison and pheasant into an unregulated and unsupervised gray area.”

Chinese firm encourages people to EAT DOGS to show ‘cultural confidence’ as it boycotts drafted law that bars pet meat from the dinner plate in the wake of coronavirus outbreak,” Daily Mail, 11 March 2020

Wildlife Markets Are Ticking Time Bombs For Epidemics Like Coronavirus,” Huffington Post, 9 February 2020

Live Wild Animal Markets, Human and Animal Health, and Biodiversity Protection,” IWB, 10 February 2020

Make ban on Chinese wildlife markets permanent, says environment expert,” The Guardian, 30 January 2020

Yulin Dog Meat Eating Festival 2016,” IWB, 16 May 2016

Animal origins of SARS coronavirus: possible links with the international trade in small carnivores,” The Royal Society, 29 July 2004

A major lesson from SARS…..is that the underlying roots of newly emergent zoonotic diseases 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” – “Wildlife Markets Are Ticking Time Bombs For Epidemics Like Coronavirus,” Huffington Post, 9 February 2020

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