China and its neighbours must not only crack down on its wildlife trade but also shut legal loopholes that allow disease-prone species to be farmed, experts are saying after the World Health Organization (WHO) investigating team concluded that Covid-19 most likely originated in animals.
The report, published on Tuesday, said it was “likely to very likely” that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that caused the global pandemic, originated in bats but was introduced to humans through an intermediary species, with wildlife farming playing a critical role.
Tong Yigang, a Chinese animal disease expert involved in the study, said the findings vindicated Beijing’s decision last year to ban the huge trade in wildlife for human consumption.
But the report also highlighted the many wildlife farms still allowed to operate legally, serving the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) industry and the fur trade.
“With wildlife farms you have a large pool of animals that are more or less genetically homogeneous, where a virus can easily evolve,” said Christian Walzer, chief veterinarian at New York’s Wildlife Preservation Society.
China tested thousands of animal samples to trace the virus’ origins, but the study said more investigations are necessary. It also recommended surveying farms that breed mink and raccoon dogs – or mangut, a type of Asian fox, which China still allows even though the animals are prone to infection.
“Cramming millions of animals together in these abusive industries creates a perfect petri dish for pandemics, and unless we ban farming for fur we will continue to play Russian roulette with global public safety,” warned Peter Li, China expert at Humane Society International.
Experts say, regulatory gaps, lax enforcement and transnational trafficking gangs all allow the wildlife trade to continue.
Pangolins, the world’s most trafficked mammal, identified as a potential intermediary species for SARS-CoV-2, remain a major prize of wildlife traffickers.
Pangolin scales were an officially recognised TCM ingredient used to treat conditions like arthritis until last year. Though China has now cracked down, activists complain that punishments remain uneven. In a recent case, traffickers caught on the island province of Hainan were given only relatively small fines.
Foreign traffickers also remain in operation. A special economic zone in the border district of Mong La in Myanmar, owned by Chinese businesses, has long been a source of pangolin scales for China.
“There’s no real government control in Mong La,” said Chris Shepherd, executive director of the Monitor Conservation Research Society, which studies illegal wildlife trafficking. “There’s no enforcement of any kind. In many places, wildlife trading isn’t seen as a priority or even as something that is necessarily wrong, and we are suffering a pandemic because of it.”
China claims the original jump to humans could have occurred beyond its borders, but critics say wildlife trading networks in Myanmar, Laos and elsewhere would not exist without Chinese demand, and Chinese investment.
Amanda Whitfort, an animal welfare law specialist at Hong Kong University, told Reuters, “The Chinese claim they are not responsible. I don’t buy it. They are driving the whole business.”