Thursday, April 2, 2020

Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood

Bat meat and wings for sale
By now we all know the COVID-19 virus (or SARS 2) infecting the world originated in bats and spread to humans either directly or via another host animal most likely a civet cat or a pangolin. Once the virus had established itself in humans it then evolved to being able to spread within the human population. Bats are not a domestic animal but they have been used for traditional medicine and as a source of food in many parts of the world including of course China. However they are also a natural reservoir for many pathogens including rabies and can readily spread disease so you wonder why anyone would want to eat them.

Civet cats in cages
At the live animal markets throughout China and other parts of Asia, a wide range of creatures ranging from bats, rats, dogs, snakes, peacocks, chickens, rabbits, porcupines, and pangolins to name a few are kept together in crowded cages ready for slaughter once they have been purchased. Under these stressful conditions it isn't hard to understand how easy it is for viruses to spread from one animal to another. The first SARS epidemic in 2003 came from civet cats being sold for meat that were carrying the virus they got from horseshoe bats. But it's also worth noting that until 1998 Chanel was harvesting the glands of civet cats for the musk used in its perfume.

Perhaps the most pitiful animal in all of this is the lowly pangolin, a scaly anteater ranging from 12-39 inches in size that is the world's most trafficked animal and responsible for 20% of all illegal wildlife trade.  A luxury food item for the Chinese, the pangolin is even more valued for its scales which are used in traditional Chinese medicine and trades for $3,000/kg on the black market. Among the many claims, pangolin scales are used to promote blood circulation, cure infertility in women, help lactating women secrete milk, treat gynecological disease, and cure anorexia in children.

Traditional Chinese Medicine ingredients
Traditional Chinese medicine has been gaining popularity throughout the world including in North America where herbal supplements like ginseng and acupuncture treatments help maintain a balanced chi. While there may be some perceived benefits in the various herbs and plants being used there is also concern about the levels of toxicity and lack of standardization. But the greatest concern is when exotic animal products from endangered species are being used to promote unsubstantiated health claims such as using tiger bones or rhino horns for their supposed healing and sexual enhancement properties.

Traditional Chinese Medicine Shop
The links between exotic wild animals and the SARS, Avian Flu, and now COVID-19 pandemics are clear, and fortunately the Chinese government has for now banned the buying, selling and eating of wild animals. But will this ban last or will it simply move underground as it did in 2003 for the SARS outbreak and in 2013 for the H7N9 Avian flu when the government implemented a temporary ban? Old customs and superstitions don't die out quickly and the wildlife-farming industry is valued at $74 billion with over 20,000 farms now affected by the ban. Pushing this underground could prove to be an even greater risk to public and global health.

As repulsive as both the live and wet markets in China may appear to Westerners there really isn't much difference between them and us on how we treat the animals we eat. In the west we do all the mostly inhumane raising and slaughtering of pigs, cattle, and chickens behind closed doors and sell the dead animals nicely packaged in the grocery store. We also eat wildlife such as moose, deer, lobster, and salmon. But we have learned how to prevent the contamination of one food source by another and to rely on proper science to determine if something truly offers a cure. China needs to educate its people and more rigorously regulate the sale of animals for food. We may have to agree to disagree on our food choices but we don't want to be misunderstood on how to prevent these new pandemics from constantly re-appearing.

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