We may know what animal incubated the new coronavirus in China: bats.
As the deadly new coronavirus out of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province in China, continues to spread and take more victims, experts are scrambling to find its source. The virus broke out of a wet market by jumping from an animal host to people. We may even know what animal: bats.
The virus may have jumped directly from wild bats or else to snakes sold as exotic food at a wet market in Wuhan and from snakes to people. Viruses that incubate in mammals pose an especial threat to us as they can more readily make the interspecies jump. “Bats and birds are considered reservoir species for viruses with pandemic potential,” explains Bart Haagmans, a virologist at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam.
Wildlife markets are especial breeding grounds for new diseases because numerous species of animals taken from forests end up in close proximity with people. “Poorly regulated live-animal markets mixed with illegal wildlife trade offer a unique opportunity for viruses to spill over from wildlife hosts into the human population,” the Wildlife Conservation Society has warned.
Yet wildlife markets continue to thrive (often illegally) in China and elsewhere across Asia. In many countries so-called bushmeat remains a common source of food for locals. Yet by hunting frequently endangered wildlife people pose a threat not only to the continued survival of these wild animals but also to themselves and other people.
Meanwhile in China, where “exotic” animals have long been seen as luxury food, wildlife is often consumed as status dishes, often at great cost to buyers. “Rich businessmen will take their colleagues to wildlife restaurants,” says Prof. Diana Bell, a conservation biologist at the University of East Anglia’s School of Biological Sciences. “Now, these [wild] animals are being sold into a multibillion pound illegal trade, right up there with drugs. They cost more than livestock.”
Many of the deadliest viruses, including HIV, SARS and Ebola, have originated in wildlife. Ebola, for instance, jumped to humans from bats via monkeys. Yet while bats may have relative immunity to such viruses, our own immune system is badly equipped to deal with the new viral threat, not having encountered it before.
That is why our safest bet is to leave wildlife be. In the wake of the deadly new coronavirus, whose rampant spread may yet turn into a global pandemic, experts have renewed calls for wild animal markets to be banned worldwide. “The Chinese and surrounding countries need to make it a priority to reduce demand and reduce supply and close the wet markets down,” Bell stresses.
“How many warning shots do we need?” she adds poignantly.