SHANGHAI (Reuters) – China and its neighbors must not only crack down on the wildlife trade, but also close legal loopholes that allow disease-prone species to be cultivated, experts said after a team of investigation concluded that COVID-19 most likely originated from animals.
A study led by the World Health Organization, released Tuesday, said it was “in all likelihood very likely” that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that caused the global pandemic, was introduced to humans by humans. bats via an intermediate species, with breeding fauna playing. a crucial role.
Tong Yigang, a Chinese animal disease expert involved in the joint study, said the findings justified Beijing’s decision last year to ban trade in wildlife for human consumption.
But the report also drew attention to wild animal farms still allowed to operate legally, serving the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) industry and the fur trade – and creating more risk of contagion.
“With farms, you have a lot of animals that are more or less genetically homogeneous, where a virus can easily evolve,” said Christian Walzer, chief veterinarian at the Wildlife Preservation Society of New York.
China has tested thousands of animal samples to trace the origins of the coronavirus, but the study says more investigations are needed. He also recommended surveys of mink and raccoon dog farms, which China still allows even if they are prone to infections.
“Bringing together millions of animals in these abusive industries creates a perfect petri dish for pandemics, and unless we ban fur farming… we will continue to play Russian roulette with global public safety. “, Warned Peter Li, Chinese expert at Humane Society International.
SCALES OF JUSTICE
Regulatory loopholes, lax enforcement and transnational trafficking gangs have allowed the wildlife trade to continue, experts said. Pangolins, an endangered mammal identified as a potential intermediate species for SARS-CoV-2, remain a major prize.
Pangolin scales were an officially recognized ingredient in TCM – used to treat conditions like arthritis – until last year. Although China has since cracked down, activists complain that the sanctions remain uneven: in a recent case, traffickers arrested in the island province of Hainan received only relatively small fines.
Foreign traffickers also remain active. A special economic zone in Myanmar’s Mong La border district, owned by Chinese companies, has long been a source of pangolin scales shipped to China.
“There is no real government control over there in Mong La,” said Chris Shepherd, executive director of the Monitor Conservation Research Society, which studies illegal wildlife trafficking. “There is no law enforcement of any kind.”
“In many places the wildlife trade is not seen as a priority or even as something that is not necessarily right, and we are suffering from a pandemic because of it.”
China says the initial spillover event could have happened beyond its border, but critics say wildlife trade networks in Myanmar and Laos would not exist without Chinese demand and investment Chinese.
“I don’t think the Chinese are not responsible for this: they are driving it,” said Amanda Whitfort, an animal welfare law specialist at the University of Hong Kong.