“The new COVID-19 coronavirus, SARS, MERS, Ebola, Avian Influenza, and Swine Flu are all derived from animals. Serious rethinking of the food animal industries is called for, and we need strict laws banning the illegal killing and selling of small animals.”
Thanks to our modern global transportation systems, we can travel from one side of the world to the other in a day, and buy and sell goods from other countries with ease. But this also means that diseases can spread with the same speed and ease. Viruses emerging in one country or region are no longer only that country’s or region’s problem.
Recent Instances of Fatal Viruses from Animals
Swine Flu is a variant of a family of influenza viruses found in pigs, and is possibly the result of gene exchange between the influenza viruses of humans, birds and pigs, all with which pigs can be infected. The fatality rate is under 1%, but it is so easily transmitted that it has been reported that globally around 203,000 people died.
Avian Flu was first found to have infected humans in 1997 in Hong Kong. It is transmitted via the feces and secretion of birds. This virus spread not only in Asia but to Europe and Africa, and killed around 17,000 people, with an additional 400 people dying from its variants.
Ebola, which first occurred in 1976 and rose to notoriety in 2014, was originally found in artibeus jamaicensis, the Jamaican fruit bat, and infected humans who consumed their meat, or the meat of the apes that also ate these bats. The fatality rate is 30~90%. 10,000 people died during the epidemic.
MERS occurred in 2012, and looks to have been transmitted to humans from camels. It infected more than 1,000 people, killing 400 from 2012 to 2015.
SARS, with a fatality rate of 11%, originated from an outdoor market in Guangdong, China in November 2002. This coronavirus spread to humans from wild civets initially from a cook who cooked their meat, followed by the doctor who treated him. The disease became a world epidemic via Hong Kong, Singapore and Vietnam killing around 770 people, most of them in Asia.
Spanish Flu, known to have begun in 1918, infected 500 million people and is estimated to have killed between 17 million to over 50 million people worldwide. It is the worst contagious disease in the history of mankind, killing more people than both world wars.
Recent research has revealed that Spanish Flu was a variant of the H1N1 coronavirus, to which Swine Flu and Avian Flu are also related. It’s quite possible that it’s yet another variant that is threatening the world today.
Development and Spread of New Viruses
These viruses that have occurred over the last few years around the world—SARS, MERS, Ebola, Swine Flu, Avian Flu, and the new COVID-19 coronavirus—have one thing in common; they have spread to humans through cross-species transmission (CST) due to close proximity with infected animals. In particular, SARS, MERS, and COVID-19 are all coronaviruses, pathogens found in various animal species, the ultimate source of which is as yet unknown.
The new COVID-19 coronavirus is strongly suspected of being derived from infected pangolins and transmitted to humans from contact while being sold in a market in the city of Wuhan in central China.
Contagious diseases are quicker to spread between individuals of the same or different species when they are in close proximity to one another, such as in farms, markets, and slaughterhouses. There are large and small markets all over China where all sorts of wild animals are secretly traded and small animals, including stolen cats and dogs, are all shut up in cages. They are slaughtered and cooked on the spot, or their meat is taken somewhere else. Their blood, feces and other secretions are spread on clothing, on hands, and the ground. It is the perfect environment for the spread of infection, both within and between species.
Then there are other cities in China, like Hebei, the world’s largest leather producer. Within the city, the manufacturing, rendering, storage, and sale of animal carcasses and fur are often carried out in people’s homes. There are mounds of fox and raccoon pelts on the ground in the street auctions. The furs of wild animals are stored and hung in the windows of department stores.
In South Korea, there are illegal dog slaughterhouses and the illegal slaughter of small animals in street markets all throughout the country. And Korea is the only country in the world to have dog farms, in which dogs are raised in large groups in unsanitary conditions for their meat. Korean dog farms often breed chickens alongside the dogs, and the two species are slaughtered in the same facility.
Activists from CARE encountered both chickens and dogs infected with influenza at the same slaughterhouse in 2018. In one cage, 10% of the 300 chickens were already dead from influenza. In other cages lay the bodies of dead dogs, and infected dogs coughing up blood.
We already know that the influenza virus can be transmitted to other species, so it is not beyond possibility—and may only be a matter of time—before another deadly variant arises from the close proximity of infected chickens and dogs, and humans in these slaughterhouses.
CARE warned the government of the dangers of influenza rampant in the dog farms and slaughterhouses of Korea, and demanded an investigation. As of yet, there has been no answer.
How To Stop Future Infections
China announced the shutting down of wild animal markets for the time being, in order to restrict contact with the animals thought to be the cause of the recent COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. Furthermore, China is pursuing a ban of the trade in wild animals altogether. However, a simple ban of the sale and slaughter of wild animals is not enough. These markets are also selling other small animals, like dogs and cats.
The Korean the government recommends thoroughly cooking meat, just as it did in the mad cow disease crisis. However, without solving the fundamental problem, mere preventive measures for humans are not enough. Avoiding the consumption of meat is not enough, because the process of rearing and slaughtering animals for meat is itself a potential cause of contagion. This peripheral treatment of the problem only highlights the fact that profits are considered more important than human lives.
Quite apart from the animal rights perspective, we must make a decision about the slaughtering of all small animals, whether wild, or domesticated and not traditionally considered food animals, like dogs and cats, or considered food animals like chickens, because without laws in place, they are vulnerable to illegal and unregulated trade and slaughter, with the potential threats to human well-being outlined above.
Serious Thought Needed
It is not much of an overstatement to say that our problems began with capturing wild animals and their domestication into farm animals. The development of civilization and the consequent rise in population necessitated the need for ever more efficient ways of producing food. Our meat-eating culture developed mass food animal farming and methods, which, along with the stress and suffering these methods cause and the selective breeding for individuals that produce more food, has made the food animal production industries ideal environments for the development of spread of new viruses. It then takes just one cross-species transmission event to produce a human epidemic.
Our excessive animal-derived-food-consuming culture and food animal industries must be reconsidered as a global priority. If we don’t address this issue, not only will the abuse and suffering of billions of animals continue, and not only will these industries continue to pollute our environment, consume ever more resources, and contribute to climate change, but it’s entirely possible that the next time a new virus jumps from a non-human to a human in a factory farm, a slaughterhouse, or an market, we won’t be able to combat it.