The wildlife trade caused coronavirus, and a vaccine can’t fix it

The multibillion-dollar wildlife trade must be brought to an end if we want to avoid more pandemics in the future.

Residents pay for groceries over barriers set up to ring fence a wet market on a street in Wuhan
Residents pay for their purchases over barriers set up around a wet market in Wuhan, Hubei province, the epicentre of China's coronavirus outbreak [Aly Song/Reuters]

US National Health Advisor Dr Anthony Fauci and Senator Lindsey Graham this week fingered wildlife “wet” markets as the source of COVID-19.

With Americans focused on the country’s rising number of coronavirus cases, Fauci and Graham represent the first high-level US voices pointing towards a post-COVID solution that prevents further pandemics.

But any successful solution will require US-Chinese collaboration because the two governments are uniquely positioned to destroy the criminal culprits behind COVID-19 before they strike again.

Fauci’s and Graham’s comments follow numerous scientific accounts that point to wild animals having transmitted the coronavirus bug that has paralysed our planet.

Some scientists theorise that the virus was passed, ironically, by Chinese disease control officers who were handling infected bats in Wuhan as part of their job. Others think COVID-19 was transmitted by pangolins (scaly anteaters) being sold in Wuhan’s wet market – a place where fish, domestic and wild animals are sold as food – possibly pre-infected by a bat.

Whichever theory turns out to be true, COVID-19 jumped to a person from a wild animal taken from its natural environment for commercial use. We call that the wildlife trade. Some of it is legal; much of it is not.

Wild animals are coming into closer, unnatural contact with people through the multibillion-dollar-a-year trade in wildlife.

This business is run by a mix of legal and criminal animal dealers, but they are all working wittingly or unwittingly with organised crime. The Chinese disease control officers would have purchased their bats from a dealer for medical experiments, the same way medical labs across the world maintain stocks of primates, rodents and other species for experimentation, often not knowing if the animals were poached or legally obtained.

Those purchases will have proper paperwork, which the dealer often sorts out through corrupt officers making extra money, a practice we see in many countries.

There is no legal trade in pangolins, the most heavily trafficked mammal in the world, so those animals would have certainly been trafficked.

But viruses do not discriminate between legally and illegally traded animals. And most wildlife markets, including online platforms, host a mix of both.

These markets do have one thing in common, though: their susceptibility to any one critter hosting a disease for which people have no immunity. Just one unlucky animal-to-human contact can result in a viral explosion.

This problem is not just about China. The wildlife trade is everywhere, as have been other outbreaks.

In Africa, HIV and Ebola jumped from endangered primates to people, most likely through the bush-meat trade.

Domesticated camels passed on deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). Migratory waterfowl infected poultry they were caged with, resulting in H5N1, also known as bird flu; raccoon-like civets offered on Chinese menus gave us Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

All of these viruses led to sickness, death and economic disruption. Experts have warned over the years that there will be more such outbreaks so long as wildlife trade increases and wild habitat decreases, even calling wildlife markets “ticking time bombs”.

China and the US are the world’s number one and two wildlife markets. The traffickers who supply Chinese consumers also stock dealers in Los Angeles, New York, Colorado, Florida and beyond.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service intercepted 26,000 pangolin products over a 10-year period from 2004 to 2013, and that was a tiny percentage of the overall one billion-plus specimens it tracks each year.

Compounding all this, I have heard first-hand from officers at the agency that about 90 to 95 percent of wildlife shipments entering the US go uninspected due to the enormous trade volumes and limited numbers of inspectors.

Chinese and US law enforcement agencies know who supplied Wuhan – this year and others – with tonnes of pangolins, snakes, turtles and many other species.

Their intelligence agencies are aware of how a sinister network source and sell animals across multiple countries, including the US.

Drug lords have nothing over this cast of characters. I know, because my organisation and I have been tracking them for 17 years, feeding intelligence to Washington and Beijing, while watching these mass criminals escape justice.

Conservationists have long struggled to get governments to crack down on the massive wildlife trade that is driving the fastest rate of species loss in history.

We have become accustomed to hearing that “wild animals need to take a back seat to national security and humanitarian priorities”. But COVID-19 clearly demonstrates that wildlife protection is integral to international security and human welfare.

The US and China both have counter-wildlife trafficking programmes. If bridged and properly resourced, they could dismantle the syndicates that brought us COVID-19 before new viral bombs are delivered to markets anywhere.

The superpowers should lead a global wildlife protection effort that would cost a tiny fraction of COVID-19’s invoice to the world, which Bloomberg estimates will be $2.7 trillion.

Recent “stimulus” packages amount to band-aids that will need frequent, expensive changing.

A vaccine will not work against the next virus.

While health experts work to flatten the viral curve and find a cure, the US and China must collaborate to inoculate the world against recurrent outbreaks by mobilising an aggressive, global wildlife protection programme as a matter of public and global security.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.