“They were two human primates carrying another primate. One was the master of the earth, or at least believed himself to be, and the other was a nimble dweller in trees, a cousin of the master of the earth. Both species, the human and the monkey, were in the presence of another life form, which was older and more powerful than either of them, and was a dweller in blood.”
— Richard Preston, The Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus, 1994
Reading Richard Preston’s 1994 book The Hot Zone, about the origins of the Ebola virus, it’s hard not to see it, like so many other pandemics throughout history, as a warning shot from Mother Nature.
Researchers believe fruit bats were the origin of Ebola, which by 2016 had killed 11,000 West Africans. There is also a connection to “bushmeat” — wild, often endangered animals sold at markets. In parts of Africa it is viewed as cheap protein, while countries like Gabon have easier access to fish and poultry, making it a luxury.
Besides the threat of extinction, bushmeat is also a source of virus transmission. For example, outbreaks of the Ebola virus in the Congo Basin and in Gabon have been linked to the butchering and consumption of bonobos and chimpanzees (with which, let’s not forget, we share 99 percent of our DNA). Last July, the World Health Organization declared the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo “a public health emergency of international concern.” With 180,000 pounds of bushmeat smuggled into the United States annually, Ebola could easily rear its ugly head here again.
Ebola is a zoonotic disease, meaning it jumps from animals to humans. Zoonotic diseases make up 75 percent of all emerging infectious diseases. They are also responsible for many of the world’s worst pandemics. HIV/AIDS began when African hunters ate the infected meat of Old World monkeys. In 2004, experts confirmed the HIV virus has jumped from primates to people on at least seven separate occasions in recent history, not twice as commonly thought, suggesting that new strains of an HIV-like virus are circulating in wild animals and infecting people who eat them.
And if Americans think something similar can’t start here, they need only look to the skeleton crew at the USDA allowing factory farmers to act as foxes in their own hen houses. Just the fact they are considering allowing “high-speed slaughter” of pigs is a sign our own mistreatment of animals is ripe to come back to haunt us. There are petitions circulating online to stop high-speed slaughter, but the inhumane conditions at factory farms, from battery-caged chicken eggs to cattle slaughtered for “cheap” ground beef, is already responsible for the majority of E. coli and salmonella outbreaks in America.
COVID-19 AND THE LINK TO WET MARKETS
The pandemic of 2020, COVID-19, is a coronavirus, and once again scientists have traced its origins to animals, with a genetic sequence nearly 80 percent similar to that of SARS (also a coronavirus). In 2003, Hong Kong researchers identified the masked palm civet, a small wild cat, as the cause of the SARS outbreak. Civet is one of the main ingredients in the exotic wildlife soup “dragon-tiger-phoenix,” a favorite of wealthy Chinese in Guangdong province. One of China’s first confirmed SARS patients, Huang Xingchu, worked as a cook in a Shenzhen restaurant that specialized in the soup.
Chinese officials traced the latest coronavirus to Huanan Seafood Market, a “wet market” in the central city of Wuhan, China. In December 2019, nearly 70 percent of the first people hospitalized passed through the market, which sold more than 112 kinds of animals, many of them live — including wolf pups, foxes, rats, crocodiles, giant salamanders, snakes, porcupines, and peacocks — as food. Also included on the list for a vendor called “Wild Game Animal Husbandry for the Masses” (“Freshly slaughtered, frozen, and delivered to your door”) was camel meat, to which the MERS coronavirus was traced.
With COVID-19, researchers from the South China Agricultural University found a genetic sequence from the virus in pangolins, considered the world’s most trafficked mammal, is 99 percent identical. They believe it may have passed from bats to humans using the pangolin as an “intermediary animal.” As a result, bushmeat sellers in Gabon’s markets have lost some of their Chinese buyers. The scales, used in Chinese medicine, are sold to illegal dealers in China at prices rivaling those of ivory. The shy creatures make easy targets, rolling up like balls when approached. It is estimated up to 2.7 million pangolins are killed and trafficked annually.
REMEMBER THE PAST
Researching this column has given me nightmares. A search for “wet markets” brought up disturbing videos (a dog being cooked alive in a large wok as it struggled to escape) and descriptions from those who have seen it firsthand.
In an open letter to “China, Indonesia, South Korea and other countries allowing the legal operation of live animal markets (wet markets),” filmmakers at Orange Planet Pictures said, “We have personally walked among these markets and been overwhelmed by their hellish nature. They are, quite simply, places of torture as dogs and cats are blowtorched to death. Children watch as bats are roasted over open flames, rats are impaled on sticks and pangolins are descaled to order. Piles of eviscerated remains pile up as pools of fresh blood form below live dismemberment.”
They also point out that the live animal markets are an anathema. “China has a most robust and devoted animal welfare movement . . . their non-wet markets are spectacular: a rainbow of colours adorn every table from fresh and delicious fruits to the most wonderful crafts.”
Despite the fact that the vast majority of Chinese nationals oppose wet markets, there have been ignorant and troubling attacks on Chinese Americans. South China Morning Post reporter Laurie Chen addressed it in a recent episode of the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast. She also said the latest crisis “started a really vital debate on Chinese social media about the need to close these wildlife markets. And people are questioning why they’re still running, after SARS was found to have originated in one of these wildlife markets in southern China.”
The wet markets were shuttered after SARS but reopened when the crisis left the headlines. The Wuhan market at the center of COVID-19 is currently closed.
For the sake of all animals, including humans, we must push to permanently close it — and all wet markets across the world — with an unrelenting combination of enforcement and education. In 1905, the American philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” As we focus on the present, we must not forget the past — and take lessons from both into the future.
E-mail: [email protected]. Follow the Marina Times on Twitter @TheMarinaTimes and like us on Facebook @MarinaTimes.