With global cases of COVID-19 pushing past 3 million — and with approximately a quarter-million deaths — the precise origin of this stealthy virus remains up for debate.
While it is certain to have emerged from the central China city of Wuhan, most but not all experts agree that the virus spread from one of the city’s “wet markets.” These sprawling outdoor markets are similar to farmers’ markets in the West except that, in addition to produce, the typical Chinese wet market includes the live slaughter of animals and the sale of wildlife.
Scientists do, however, seem to concur that the disease evolved from bats — nature’s only flying mammal — one common to the region and to the diet of many locals.
A different school of thought, reportedly sparked by unnamed U.S. intelligence sources, claims the virus escaped from a high-security virology lab in Wuhan. Spread by Fox News, conservative talk shows and a host of online conspiracy theorists, the story has gained intensity — despite the lack of any tangible evidence of a lab leak — and the strong denial of a breach by the Chinese government and the World Health Organization (WHO).
Most experts believe that what occurred was a natural, animal-to-human spread of the virus — almost certainly originating from live and/or wild animals sold at one of Wuhan’s traditional wet markets. Scientists further reason that transmission of the deadly disease was facilitated via an intermediary species, namely bats.
“The idea that this virus escaped from a lab is just pure baloney,” says Peter Daszak, disease ecologist and president of EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit that works globally to combat infectious diseases. “I’ve been working with that Wuhan lab for 15 years. It is a very well-run lab, staffed by some of the best scientists in the world. There was no viral isolate in the lab. There was no cultured coronavirus. So, a leak was just not possible.”
Daszak also decries the politicization of the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“During every outbreak of a novel virus, somebody somewhere says it was manufactured in a lab, and that’s really unfortunate,” says Daszak. “There are people out there who still believe HIV is a bioengineered virus that spread around the world.”
Eco-Alliance’s studies surrounding the origin of emerging diseases reveal that more than 75% of new diseases — including such pandemic viruses as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), H1N1 flu and Ebola — originated in wildlife.
Bats may be the planet’s most proficient virus carriers but every species of wildlife carries viruses that are a natural part of its biology, much like the common cold is to humans. While these viruses don’t have much effect on species in the wild, when we make contact with them we can pick up those viruses — and they can be lethal as clearly evidenced by the current coronavirus pandemic.
Daszak points out that there are an estimated 1.7 million viruses circulating in wildlife and with such diversity there’s just no telling what diseases might emerge in the future.
“The way to deal with this is not to wait for them to emerge,” says Daszak. “The way to do it is to get out there ahead of the curve, find out what’s out there in wildlife, find out who’s at risk, work with people on the frontline and reduce that risk.”
Another expert who expounds on the need for a global proactive approach in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic is Dr. Dennis Carroll, formerly the senior infectious disease adviser at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). For decades, Carroll was the leading voice on the threat of “zoonotic spillover,” the transmission of pathogens from animals to humans.
Carroll recognized that emerging infectious diseases, far and wide, have mostly come from wildlife — and there needed to be investment in research in the wildlife sector. Working for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), he formed a program called PREDICT, where he guided trailblazing research into viruses hiding, and waiting to emerge, in animals around the world.
For 10 years, PREDICT received federal funding of $15 to $20 million annually, but the program was dropped by the Trump administration in 2019 — just months prior to the outbreak of COVID-19. Carroll left USAID to form a new program, the privately funded Global Virome Project (GVP), to confront the emergence of viral epidemics and pandemics.
The 10-year project will “build on PREDICT’s scientific insights and experiences,” says Carroll, who is dedicated to an international effort that will “identify and characterize 99% of all zoonotic viruses with epidemic/pandemic potential in order to better predict, prevent and respond to future viral threats.”
To achieve this core objective, GVP aims to build a comprehensive database in order to design science-based surveillance, preparedness and prevention plans enabling the development of countermeasures well in advance of future epidemic/pandemic events.
Back at ground zero for the current pandemic, Wuhan has made remarkable progress in stemming the virus outbreak and returning to a cautious state of normalcy.
But the government, which doesn’t take kindly to criticism, has taken a series of knee-jerk reactions in responding to universal outcries to shut down wildlife markets, stem the trade of live animals and drastically improve sanitation at traditional wet markets. The government initially closed all the Wuhan markets in January, and then reopened them in February, while imposing a ban on the sale and consumption of wild animals.
The ban has been seen as somewhat half-hearted, however, as China began offering tax breaks to the multibillion-dollar animal-products industry for exporting some of the creatures overseas. Value-added tax rebates were raised on nearly 1,500 Chinese products, including a 9% rebate on exports of animal products, like edible snakes, turtles, primate meat, beaver and civet musk and rhino horns. Vietnam is the largest importer of China’s wild animal exports, followed by South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Indonesia.
The challenge facing Beijing’s central government as Wuhan and the rest of the country returns to life as normal will be how to keep open such markets while enforcing rules against the live slaughter of animals or the sale of wildlife on site.
“Banning wet markets is not only going to be impossible, but will also be destructive for urban food security in China as they play such a pivotal role in ensuring urban residents’ access to affordable and fresh food,” warns Dr. Zhenzhong Si, a research associate studying food security at University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada
Meanwhile, U.S. officials continue to call for President Xi Jinping’s government to close the markets, saying they are breeding grounds for disease.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, America’s favorite virus guru and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, stated recently that the coronavirus was a “direct result” of unsanitary markets and said it was “mind-boggling” that the markets remain open.