GENEVA— The SARS-CoV-2 virus likely originated from human exploitation of wildlife, according to today’s findings from a World Health Organization-led investigation.
The report, based on a mission to China by WHO-appointed experts, explored several theories about the pandemic’s cause. While no definitive conclusions were reached, the report calls for further research into wildlife and domestic animal farms in China and the global wildlife and domestic animal trade through which the virus could have been imported into the country. The report noted that all hypotheses for the pandemic’s origin remain under consideration.
The report comes as U.S. lawmakers consider the Preventing Future Pandemics Act, a bipartisan bill that would shut down the trade in live terrestrial wild animals for human consumption, close wildlife markets and spur international action to curtail future pandemics.
“This report highlights the urgent need to curb wildlife exploitation and signals that wildlife trade could have led to the pandemic,” said Tanya Sanerib, international legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Disease risk is a global threat. Whether a bat is captured for food in southeast Asia or to make a paperweight for a desk in the United States, people’s demand for wildlife anywhere in the world creates a risk of new diseases emerging.”
Based on the mission results, the report highlights the grave risk wildlife and domestic animal farms pose for disease spillover. It specifically calls for further investigation into fur farms. The report notes that mink, a species commonly farmed for fur, could be the source of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
“We know the conditions at factory farms, especially those involving wild animals like mink, create perfect breeding grounds for highly contagious diseases that can mutate and spread between people and animals,” said Lori Ann Burd, environmental health director at the Center. “Now the only question is, will we act on this knowledge to help prevent the next pandemic, or will we sit back and let it happen all over again?”
The report analyzed 38,515 livestock and poultry samples and 41,696 wild animal samples gathered from 31 provinces in China from 2018 to 2020, but none were positive for the coronavirus. The United States lacks such a surveillance system for disease risk but drives wildlife exploitation by consuming roughly 20% of the global wildlife trade. Without tighter restrictions, the U.S. will continue to fuel disease risk.
“Despite extensive surveillance of livestock and wildlife in China, the pandemic wasn’t stopped. It’s clear that surveillance isn’t the answer. Lawmakers need to curtail wildlife exploitation to halt new diseases from emerging,” said Sanerib. “It’s time to pass the Preventing Future Pandemics Act and for the U.S. to lead the world in conserving and restoring wildlife populations and natural ecosystems. Human salvation rests in the preservation of nature.”
The current pandemic is a symptom of the ongoing extinction crises. Exploitation of wildlife is the primary driver of the loss of marine species and the secondary driver of the loss of terrestrial species, according to global experts. Curtailing the exploitation of wildlife and nature to curb future pandemic risk will also help mitigate biodiversity loss.
In Oregon legislation has been introduced to phase out Oregon’s mink farming industry and provide training and support to the mink farmers adversely affected by the virus. If passed into law, that legislation, S.B. 832, will take a vital step towards protecting communities and wildlife against future pandemic threats.