The source of COVID-19, the zoonotic infectious disease that has shaken the globe in recent months, is yet undetermined, but scientists believe the pathogen may have been transferred from animals to people in a live wildlife market in China. The COVID-19 pandemic has infected more than a million individuals worldwide, causing over 70,000 deaths and counting.
Panthera Chief Scientist and Tiger Program Director, Dr. John Goodrich, stated, “In the midst of the global COVID-19 crisis, we urge the World Health Organization to publicly acknowledge the proven risks to human health associated with unsanitary, inhumane and poorly regulated wildlife markets. As a guardian of global public health, the WHO must take a decisive step to prevent the next pandemic by urging governments to permanently ban live wildlife markets and proactively address the proven health risks stemming from the wildlife trade.”
Notorious for lack of hygiene, unregulated live or ‘wet’ wildlife markets typically house wild mammals and reptiles in crowded cages stacked on top of one another, butchering animals on the same block and creating perfect conditions for inter-species disease transmission. Intensively farmed, or plucked from the wild and under great stress, species with weakened immune systems kept in unnatural conditions are more likely to contract and spread viruses to other animals and people.
Panthera has also joined in calling for the WHO to unequivocally exclude the use of wildlife, including from captive bred specimens, in the organization’s definition and endorsement of Traditional Medicine.
In a controversial decision questioned by wildlife and public health scientists around the globe, the World Health Organization formally recognized Traditional Medicine in May of last year, adopting 400 diagnoses pertaining to Traditional Medicine in the 11th version of the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD). While Traditional Medicine has played an undeniably positive role in human health and culture for centuries, including the discovery and use of artemisinin to treat malaria, the repercussions for global public health and wild animals if the industry grows without clarifications and restrictions on its use of wild animals could be grave and fatal for many.
Along with contributing to the catastrophic decline of countless wildlife species, including pangolins, tigers, lions, leopards, rhinos and many other wild animals, the Traditional Medicine industry presents its own threat to global public health. Animals are farmed or poached from the wild for their parts, used to treat ailments ranging from arthritis to epilepsy to erectile dysfunction, despite a lack of scientific evidence regarding the efficacy of the vast majority of conditions. Risk of disease transmission is prevalent in the capture, transport, slaughter and consumption of wild animals for this industry.
Panthera CEO, Dr. Frederic Launay, stated, “The interconnection between the health of animals, humans, and the planet itself has never been more stark. The World Health Organization has a critical role to play to ensure that our increased understanding of the risks inherent in wildlife markets results in unprecedented global cooperation to bring an end to the illegal wildlife trade and prioritize coexistence for the health of us all.”
It is human proximity to wild animals in these markets, not the existence of animals themselves, that bears the blame for the current COVID-19 crisis, and many zoonotic diseases that came before.
Following the emergence of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002 and 2003, failure to enforce permanent bans on all wild animal markets allowed for the rise of COVID-19 - a similar, but more infectious, disease. Ebola, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), bovine tuberculosis, rabies, and leptospirosis are other significant zoonotic diseases, the transmission of which have been associated with wild animals.
As of today, zoonotic diseases are responsible for over two billion cases of human illness and over two million human deaths each year. Sixty percent of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic and seventy percent of these are thought to originate from wildlife.