On January 22, 2019, CNN published an article titled, “Fashion’s Chinese New Year Quandary: Can Rats Ever Be Luxury?” As if that was not shocking enough, the piece was accompanied by a picture of a Chinese fashion model with a white rat perched on her shoulder. Rats? Hosts to over 180 zoonotic diseases—humanised? I thought surely these people must not be serious. Rats—the vectors of the bubonic plague itself; the plague which took over 25 million lives worldwide; these same rodents—petted? Luxury? I thought these were a people who took Ratatouille the movie quite too literally. The article turned out to be a dissection into consumerism in the context of the fashion industry’s profiteering, commercialisation of a deep-rooted Chinese tradition. But this article—more precisely, its title and the image accompanying it—was to gnaw on me for the days to come.
This is because on January 23, 2019—just a day after said article—China recorded 655 cases of the novel coronavirus, and 18 deaths, with the virus extending to 9 different countries. If these coronavirus-days have got you re-thinking human/animal relationships—that is apt thinking. One cannot help but ponder over humans interactions with animals—these relationships, very much checkered; some borne out of necessity; some, out of sheer cruelty, and others completely dispensable.
Human/animal relationships is not a pointless thing to ponder over for research shows that about three-quarters of human pathogenic diseases are zoonotic—meaning they are diseases that spread from animals to humans. And 70% of these zoonotic infections caused humans originate from wildlife. That is why the emergence and re-emergence of zoonotic diseases from a country like China comes as no shock to many. So much so, in fact, that many writers, movie directors, public speakers, etc. are incorrectly being hailed as prophets—for they predicted the predictable: that there will rise again, another pandemic; some aptly narrowed it down to China; others more specifically, down to the wet markets in China.
Animal-to-human diseases have and are causing the human race dearly yet a complete disassociation of humans from animals is too absurd, and un-human even. However, our relationships with animals do need a serious check. Worldwide vegetarianism and veganism is, too, an absurd recommendation for a naturally omnivorous mammal such as humans; yet our palate for and agglomeration of certain animals need vigorous checks and balances.
Global contributions to zoonoses
Countries worldwide, throughout history, have made their individual contributions to the emergence, re-emergence, and spread of zoonotic diseases. As perhaps surmised by the reader per the writer’s focus on China: all zoonotic diseases emerge from China. That is untrue. All diseases have not and do not emerge from China. Ebola was, for instance, first recorded in Congo and Sudan, in 1976, re-emergences have followed since, with the largest outbreaks occurring worldwide, in 2013-2016, then again in 2017 to date.
Nipah virus was discovered first in Malaysia in 1999. Japanese Encephalitis has origins in Japan (in the 1870s) with foothold in Southeast Asia. MERS was discovered in Saudi Arabia; Lyme disease, in USA in 1960. Zika fever and West Nile virus were first isolated in Uganda in 1947 and 1937 respectively. All these, arguably so.
Yet China’s contribution has been dense. Concerns about China being established as hub for such diseases must be especially worrying due to certain secondary factors, such as population density and the nation’s status as the age’s major industrial hub, with connecting and frequent links between it and various countries across the globe. But more about that in a bit.
United Animals and the doom spelt
The nation’s track record of zoonotic outbreaks—one that worries local and international observers alike—has ranged from containable and low-consequence diseases, endemics, epidemics, to pandemics. Back in 1996/1997, an avian influenza HPAI H5N1 broke out in Guangdong, China, re-emerging several times in the decade that followed, and having a worldwide human mortality rate of over 60%.
In 2013, another avian influenza H7N9, emerged from the country and persists to this day with mortality rate pegged at around 30%.
In 2002, the infamous SARS broke out in the Guangdong Province, and earned its name as the first fatal human coronavirus; the Middle East gave us another coronavirus, MERS in 2012; only for China to re-emerge, during the latter part of 2019, with another pandemic, COVID-19.
Retracing the steps of patients infected with the H7N9, SARS, COVID-19 viruses have all led to the wet markets of the country.
As mentioned earlier in the article, not all animal-to-human diseases are caused by wildlife. A number of these diseases have been traced to domestic animals. However, the fact that the possibility still exists, in a large number of cases, that some domestic animals may serve, or may have served as intermediary vectors for these zoonotic diseases, still makes the discomfort caused by the wet markets—very much ingrained in the Chinese culture—merited.
Admittedly, the issue of the vector source, is one of the many points of uncertainties for researchers during zoonotic disease outbreaks. In this particular uncertainty, researchers find themselves presented with a number of possible animal sources—most at times, these include both wild and domestic animals. With the SARS outbreak, for example, palm civets, raccoon dogs, ferret-badgers, cats, and bats were suspected vectors. The MERS outbreak came with bats, camels as possible sources.
The present COVID-19 outbreak sees snakes, pangolins, bats presented as suspected causative agents. Yet with all these uncertainties, many highlight Chinese wet markets with surety. This is due to the markets’ agglomeration of varied species of animals at one place, making the jump of diseases from one specie to another, then ultimately to humans very easy.
Trespassing Animal Habitats/Breaching Human Territories
Human co-existence with animals, throughout history—a natural phenomenon—has taught us one thing: the inevitability of a defying of the species barrier—of a jump of diseases from animals to animals, and animals to humans. But humans’ incessant invasion into wildlife territories shows us that such zoonotic diseases are more likely to occur—at exponential rates, because by so doing, we expose our immune systems to diseases foreign to it—diseases of which we have no immunity against.
Interestingly, some argue also for a somewhat ‘breaching’ of human territories by animals, as another cause for the emergence of zoonoses. The writer uses ‘breaching’ lightly—for it is proven that it is the constant deforestations animal habitats undergo due to human activities that leave these animals with no choice but to share the same habitats with humans. The Chinese-originating disease, SFTS (severe fever with thrombocytopenia)—a disease caused by ticks—is one example of such diseases resulting from deforestation.
Globalisation of diseases
Globalisation shows us that these incidences of zoonotic disease outbreaks stand enormous chances of being rendered pandemics within short periods of time. This makes it a very bad time to be reckless in our national and global lives, in our handling of animals.
This highly globalised world offer enormous benefits—economic, socio-economic, knowledge and technology transfer, etc. It offers, also, this bane of giving communicable diseases feet and wings, such that diseases which in centuries past, would, in their deadliest have been endemics or epidemics, now have such pandemic potential that, now, a nation’s cultural, environmental, health practices etc. ought to be made the business of other countries across the globe. And in the case of countries like China, the worrisome culture of trading in wildlife and endangered species, and the agglomeration of these diverse species in one confinements—wet markets, constitute such topics requiring such global discourse.
This global community our world has become requires that we join voices in the fight against the trade in wildlife and endangered species—we must be able to voice our concerns about the unsanitary practices in the nation’s wet markets. These wet markets serve as hub for the transmission of diseases from animals to animals, and eventually animals to humans in such assured ways that it renders the persistent emergence of diseases from such markets not surprising at all.
The concerning secondary factors
China is the most populous nation in the world—over 1.4 billion people. The global population is around 7.8 billion—pegging China’s population at almost 20% of the entire world’s. These large numbers is fuel for the spread of diseases, helping catapult them to the status of pandemics within a short span.
In this information age, this quickly developing nation has established itself as the emblem of the industrialised age—as this era’s industrial hub, hence countries worldwide, have its citizenry and businesses trooping in and out of China every chance they get—which is a great thing.
However, when a nation of such great importance to this global world community has within it a number of centers which serve very high chances of the occurrence of deadly animal-to-human transmissions, globalisation, a powerful economic tool, turns on its head, and becomes a weapon of mass destruction.
United nations against globalised diseases
This insistence upon a much more robust preventive system against zoonotic diseases is not solely a suggestion from without the borders of China. There have been series of internal pressures from within the country, insisting upon more effective systems to help prevent future emergence and re-emergence of such animal-to-human diseases. It is about time the world added its unbending and consistent voice to these internal pressures, for it has been the habit of the world to revert back to the lackadaisical after playing defensive against a pandemic or epidemic, and narrowly escaping said disease.
In 2003, after the curbing of SARS, China reverted back to business as usual by lifting the various bans placed on the trade in wildlife. COVID-19 has seen an all too familiar ban on wildlife and the culling of wet markets—one would be right to foretell another backtrack, upon the curtailing of this novel coronavirus. The Middle East decided that camels, one largely suspected vector of the MERS virus, had too grave a cultural importance to be divorced from, hence rendering MERS a periodic disease.
A fight against uncertainties
Our experiences with disease outbreaks, specifically coronavirus outbreaks, have been that of little assuredness. Past coronaviruses, for one, have eluded researchers to no end; the present COVID-19 offers the same elusiveness—in fact researchers suspect that more cases of zoonotic outbreaks occur, and pass without us noticing.
Each outbreak has left the world with the scenario of walking through a maze, and this is not without the consequence of mortalities—the many lives that are inevitably lost, no matter how well we mollify ourselves with the lowness of some of these diseases’ fatality rates—the bottom-line is that at the end of the day, lives are lost. While we labour about, chasing these viruses with the hopes of understanding them well enough to arrive at solutions for them, lives are inevitably lost. And during these outbreaks, even the most able of governments, worldwide, are left with the feeling of helplessness.
No preparation prior to such outbreaks is enough to actually place us ahead of such viruses—the human race is always behind these viruses. It has been two decades after the outbreak of the first fatal human coronavirus—SARS and no vaccine has been arrived at; it has been over a decade since MERS, and the same situation ensues.
A certainty among uncertainties
There have been very few certainties accorded us by COVID-19, SARS, and past avian influenzas. Atop this scant list is the immutability of China’s wet markets as grounds for the festering and transferring of zoonotic diseases. The irony then is that the trade in wildlife and endangered species is not only deadly for these preys—these animals, but for the predators too—us humans. Like many diseases, prevention seems to be one sure cure. The world owes itself more care in its dealing with animals.
Deadly for one, deadly for all—this seems to be our globalised situation when it comes to diseases. Thus, as we concern ourselves with the question of what our various governments and fellow citizens are doing to ensure sustainable development and general human wellbeing in our national lives, we must concern ourselves, too, with what foreign governments and nationals are doing to ensure same, on the global stage.
In retrospect, my shock upon just reading that CNN article title was merited after all; so is our happiness, now, at the announcement by the Chinese government of finally instituting legislations that will put an end to the trade in wildlife and endangered species…
>>>The author is the co-founder, Blarney Stone Inc. (BSI Africa). she can be reached on [email protected]. BSI Africa is an organisation that specialises in the creation of policy-initiating programmes aimed at spurring our country and continent toward economic and socio-economic development. www.blarneystoneinc.com