- 1.7 million undiscovered viruses in wildlife, nearly half of which could be harmful to humans
- More than 60 percent of new emerging human infectious diseases reach us via animals
The animal-borne SARS virus 17 years ago was supposed to be a wake-up call about consuming wildlife as food, but scientists say China’s latest epidemic indicates that the practice remains widespread and a growing risk to human health.
Like SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), which was traced to bats and civets, the virus that has killed dozens in China and infected almost 2,000 people is believed to have originated in animals trafficked for food.
Final findings are yet to be announced, but Chinese health officials believe it came from wildlife sold illegally at a meat market in the central city of Wuhan that offered everything from rats to wolf puppies and giant salamanders.
The so-called “bushmeat” trade, plus broader human encroachment on wild habitats, is bringing us into ever-closer contact with animal viruses that can spread rapidly in our uber-connected world, said Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a global NGO focused on infectious disease prevention.
The Global Virome Project, a worldwide effort to increase preparedness for pandemics, which Daszak is a part of, estimates there are 1.7 million undiscovered viruses in wildlife, nearly half of which could be harmful to humans.
Daszak said the project’s research indicates we can expect around five new animal-borne pathogens to infect humanity each year.
“The new normal is that pandemics are going to happen more frequently,” he said. “We are making contact with animals that carry these viruses more, and more, and more.”
Viruses are a natural part of the environment, and not all are the stuff of sci-fi horror.
But the recent track record of animal-hosted viruses that “jump” to humans is sobering. Like SARS, which killed hundreds in China and Hong Kong in 2002-03, Ebola also was traced to bats, while HIV has roots in African primates.
Today, more than 60 percent of new emerging human infectious diseases reach us via animals, scientists say.
Even familiar menu items like poultry and cattle -- whose pathogens we have largely adapted to over millennia -- occasionally throw a curveball, like bird flu or mad-cow disease.
China yesterday banned all trade in wildlife until the emergency is over, but conservationists complain that China has previously failed to deliver on pledges to get tough.
Environmental groups say Chinese demand, fuelled by rising consumer buying power, is the biggest driver of the global bushmeat trade today.
Some rare species have been prized in China as delicacies or for unproved health benefits since ancient times. But the trend is changing
Recent surveys strongly indicate that China’s younger generation -- swayed partly by animal-rights campaigns involving popular Chinese celebrities -- are much less inclined to tuck into bat, rat, or salamander, he added.
“I think that in 50 years this will be a thing of the past,” Daszak said.
“The problem is that we live in such an interconnected world today that any pandemic like this can spread globally in three weeks.”