When G20 health ministers meet this Sunday 19 April, agreeing measures to prevent another coronavirus pandemic must be their top priority. An essential step will be a global ban on the exploitation and trade of wild animals - the likely source of the COVID-19 virus.
Stopping future disease outbreaks means rethinking our relationship with wild animals. Exploiting and commodifying them as we do for a variety of purposes is not just unethical, it is unsafe.
This blog was written by Ben Pearson, head of wildlife campaigns in our Australia office.
Understanding the source of this pandemic is essential to avoid a repeat in the future. COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, meaning the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, originated in animals and was passed to humans, where it caused the disease.
Overall, 60% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, with 70% of these thought to originate from wild animals. In the case of COVID-19 and previous virus-related pandemics, the outbreak started at a live animal market. The Prime Minister was right to express concern about these markets reopening, but he needs to go further.
But, a singular focus on live animal markets obscures the bigger picture. Live animal markets are possibly the most shocking and visible part of the global trade in wild animals, that is not only immensely cruel, but immensely dangerous. Globally, millions of wild animals are captured, bred and traded every year for medicine, clothing, pets and entertainment. For those not slaughtered upon capture, their lives are often one of boredom, abuse and suffering.
The horrors of the wildlife trade should be reason enough to ban it. Yet the COVID-19 disaster demonstrates that the trade is not only an animal welfare catastrophe, it is a global health risk.
Wild animal diseases are usually of no significant risk to people, because of the limited opportunities for the pathogens to infect people if the animals remain in the wild. Pathogens jumping between different wild species is also less common in the wild, reducing the risk of reducing the risk of becoming infectious to people. This changes however, when wildlife trade comes into play. Often, the wildlife trade brings together a wide variety of animals that would typically have no contact in the wild, creating a hotbed of lethal diseases.
Added to that, the appalling and stressful conditions that the animals endure, leave them immunosuppressed, making it even more likely they will succumb to infection or harbour pathogens. And, by bringing those animals into contact withhumans in a variety of ways, the trade makes it possible for new diseases to arise and jump the species barrier.
Stopping future disease outbreaks means rethinking our relationship with wild animals. Exploiting and commodifying them as we do for a variety of purposes is not just unethical, it is unsafe. We need to start practising social distancing between humans and wild animals, leaving wild animals in the wild where they belong.
There are already positive signs that change is happening. The Chinese government has put in place a ban on the trade of wild animals for consumption, and the Vietnamese government is in the process of introducing a similar directive. But, with fears live animal markets may reopen after lockdowns are lifted, as they did after the SARS coronavirus outbreak of 2003, more needs to be done.
As with previous international crises, the G20 needs to show leadership. Bans must be applied across all wildlife trade and made permanent, comprehensive and properly enforced. The alternative is waiting for the next coronavirus to jump the species barrier and inflict further death and devastation. There can be no greater priority for G20 Health Ministers than avoiding this outcome.