Coronaviruses (CoV) are a family of viruses common in animals that can cause human illness ranging from the symptoms of the common cold to life-threatening respiratory infections.
According to a posting on the World Health Organization website, COVID-19 is the latest version of Coronavirus, a strain discovered in 2019 that was not previously found in humans.
Coronavirus is a zoonotic disease, meaning it can be transmitted from wild animals to humans.
“Several known coronaviruses are circulating in animals that have not yet infected humans,” the website posting noted.
China’s Illegal Trade in Wildlife
China is one of the main sources of this family of deadly viruses, whose origins trace back to their illegal trade in wildlife.
The Chinese people’s appetite for “bushmeat” and wildlife parts used in traditional medicine are fueling most of these dangerous worldwide public health pandemics.
In the past decade, wildlife trafficking – the poaching or other taking of protected or managed species and the illegal trade in wildlife and their related parts and products – has escalated into an international crisis, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
World Pangolin Day is celebrated every year on the third Saturday in February to raise global awareness about pangolins — the threats they face and the efforts to prevent them from becoming extinct.
In a 2015 article The New York Times reported that “pangolins are the most trafficked mammals in the world.”
The pangolin is a scaly anteater. There are four species in Asia, all of which are either threatened or endangered.
Pangolins have large, protective keratin scales covering their skin. They live in hollow trees or burrows and are nocturnal. Their diet consists mainly of ants or termites.
Pangolins are threatened by poaching for their meat and scales, which are believed to cure a variety of ailments including excessive nervousness, hysterical crying children, women possessed by devils and ogres, malarial fever, and deafness, according to Chinese traditional medicine.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that more than a million pangolins have been poached from the wild in China, Africa and Southeast Asia the past decade to meet the demand for their meat and scales.
Commercial Trade of Wildlife in the U.S.
The commercial trade of wildlife in the U.S. was outlawed 120 years ago.
The Lacey Act was introduced into Congress by Rep. John F. Lacey, an Iowa Republican, and signed into law by Republican President William McKinley on May 25, 1900.
The act outlawed market hunting and fishing, and created civil and criminal penalties for trade in wildlife, fish, and plants that had been illegally taken, possessed, transported, or sold
The Lacey Act of 1900 granted protection to game fish, elk, deer, wild turkeys, bears, small game animals such as squirrels, rabbits and quail, wild sheep, antelope, migratory game birds such as waterfowl and mourning doves, and other wildlife species, both game and non-game.
Game species began being managed with state and federal hunting and fishing seasons and harvest limits. This legislation saved many game species that were clearly headed for extinction, and paved the way for the monitoring, restoration and habitat management of many threatened and endangered non-game species in North America, such as the iconic Bald Eagle.
Similar strict laws and protections have either not been mandated, or are not being actively enforced, throughout China.
China’s Wildlife Laws
China has vowed to overhaul its wildlife laws to prevent future viral outbreaks, but to no avail.
Wang Ruihe, director of the Legislative Affairs Commission of the National People’s Congress (NPC) said that the time has come to improve regulations related to the wildlife protection law and crackdown on culprits involved in the trade.
Laws related to trade in wildlife were last revised in 2016, but the changes were not enough to effectively put an end to the commercial trade. “Despite the proven effects of the law on the protection of wildlife after its revision in 2016, there are still some problems in its implementation,” Wang Ruihe told the Xinhua News Agency, China’s state-run media.
Coronavirus Outbreak Timeline
In recent years there have been several Coronavirus outbreaks. Here’s some details:
• Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV).
The first case was in November 2002 in China’s Guangdong Province. The virus was traced to the Civet, a nocturnal omnivorous cat, sold for meat in local markets in Yunnan province.
The virus originated in the Horseshoe Bat, with the Civet ultimately infecting humans who ate undercooked meat.
The resulting viral outbreak killed 774 people.
• Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV)
The disease, transmitted from Dromedary camels to humans, first appeared in 2012.
In June of that year virologists identified the cause, a new strain of the Coronavirus.
The Dromedary, also called the Arabian camel, has one hump on its back was domesticated from wild, free-ranging animals about 4,000 years ago.
Its meat and milk is a staple of northern Arabian tribes and this camel is also commonly used as a beast of burden.
Dromedaries are susceptible to parasites, sarcoptic mange and brucellosis. They are also a host to MERS-CoV, which is transmitted to humans by eating camel meat, drinking camel milk that has not be properly pasteurized, or simply living in close proximity to camels.
Victims experience pneumonia like symptoms, but also suffer gastrointestinal distress and sometimes experience kidney failure.
According to a World Health Organization report issued in November 2019 there have been 2,492 reported cases in 27 counties and 858 deaths since 2012, mostly in Saudi Arabia.
This highly-contagious, deadly new strain of Coronavirus was reported to have first been detected in December, 2019, originating from a seafood market in Wuhan, capital of central China’s Hubei Province, where a wide range of “bushmeats” were being sold.
According to researchers, the virus was transmitted from Horseshoe Bats to an unknown host, probably live snakes or pangolins on sale at the wet market.
Alarmed over the situation, China temporarily banned wildlife trade and game meat consumption until the end of the outbreak.
In February 2020, university researchers in China employing genomic sequencing found a 99 percent match between the Coronavirus found in pangolins and the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic, according to an article published in Medical News Today, of Brighton, East Sussex, England.
Dirk Pfeiffer, a professor of veterinary medicine at Hong Kong’s City University said the Chinese government should have implemented legislative changes (to wildlife laws) after the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-Cov) outbreak in 2002.
As of March 23, 2020, The World Health Organization reported 351,705 confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide, with 15,361 confirmed deaths.
In the U.S., as of March 23, there were 35,418 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 473 confirmed deaths.
Passing stricter laws prohibiting commercial trade in wildlife, and the aggressive enforcement of those laws, will help protect the ecological integrity of wildlife in China, and throughout Asia.
These laws could also help prevent future outbreaks of zoonotic diseases that are a threat to public health worldwide.