Opinion

Clean up the stables

| Updated on June 17, 2021

Halt the trade in wild animals

As researchers look in mines, bat caves and leaking laboratories to unravel the origins of the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), there is a warning we could do well to heed. And that is to let animals and their habitats be.

It’s a warning we have heard after earlier pandemics as well, as researchers revealed that zoonotic virus jumped from a pangolin or civet to humans, in an environment where the animal was stressed. The warning spans farm animals (poultry, pigs and cattle, for example) to “wet markets” that push consumption and trade of bush or wild meat. Between the diet and handling of these animals, a fertile ground was laid for disease to spread. Add to this a plane-load of travellers, and the virus catches on like wild-fire, as we witnessed and lived through last year.

Whether or not SARS-CoV-2 was engineered in a lab, researchers point out that the Wuhan wet market amplified its spread.

A senior researcher who was on the international team that went to Wuhan also pointed to leads of similar viruses reported at other farms before the December timeline when the world was officially told of the coronavirus.

More recently, researchers also point to fur farms that feed the clothing industry. Wild animals in stressful caged-conditions shed viruses that jump species, say researchers, calling for a stop in the trade of live wild animals for exotic meat, fur and as pets.

Organisations like the WHO stop short of calling for a ban on such practices, as they are integral to the culture of a country.

But it is time to rethink this policy, as bush meat has its links to Ebola and wild animals markets and meat are being investigated in SARS-CoV-2.

And it is not just the wild meat, more humane and sustainable practices need to be brought into other animal farms as well, involving poultry, pigs, fish, cattle and so on.

Protests are expected from industry about the livelihood of people employed on these farms, if wild meat is banned. The same was said of tobacco too. Doctors however say that tobacco is harmful not just for those consuming it, but also those involved in its farming and production.

Zoonotic viruses

The frequency of zoonotic viruses jumping species and the warning signals of more pandemics, possibly more frequently, should be all the evidence the world needs to stop wild meat trade and consumption and insist on sustainable agri-practices, be it in mechanised meat farms in developed countries or the backyard ones in developing countries.

Last month, international organisations formed the One Health High-Level Expert Panel to understand how diseases with the potential to trigger pandemics, emerge and spread.

The panel is tasked with advising the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO); the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE); the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP); and the World Health Organization (WHO) — for a global plan to avert outbreaks of diseases like H5N1 avian influenza; MERS; Ebola; Zika, and, possibly, Covid-19.

The panel would also assess the impact of human activity on environment and wildlife habitats, look at food production and distribution; urbanisation and infrastructure development; international travel and trade; activities that lead to biodiversity loss and climate change; “and those that put increased pressure on the natural resource base — all of which can lead to the emergence of zoonotic diseases.”

Make no mistake, this is not about singling out a country or dietary practices.

With three quarters of all emerging infectious diseases reportedly originating in animals, the world can ill afford to turn a blind eye to the desperate need to clean up the stables and leave the animal habitats alone.

Published on June 17, 2021

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