A new report has found an alarmingly high rate of coronaviruses in wildlife about to be served at restaurants in Vietnam.
While the country is looking to stop importing imperiled animals to eat, it has yet to do so, and there are still “wildlife restaurants” that have rats, bats, civet cats, snakes, bear, monkeys and pangolins on the menu.
In a study that appears in the pre-print journal bioRxiv, researchers found 56 percent of wild rats were infected with a coronavirus by the time they were ready to be served at restaurants — double from when the animals were first caught.
Coronavirus detection rates in rodent populations sampled in their “natural” habitat were around 0 to 2 percent, jumping to 21 percent by the time they had been caught by traffickers. Due to confinement conditions, by the time the animals hit “wet” markets, they had a 32 percent contamination rate before rising even higher at restaurants, where they are killed and immediately served to diners.
The study was put together by scientists from Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the Department of Animal Health of the Viet Nam Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Viet Nam National University of Agriculture, EcoHealth Alliance and One Health Institute of the University of California, Davis
COVID-19 is a coronavirus, as is SARS and the flu. It is thought many coronaviruses incubate in animals before “jumping to humans,” as may have happened with the most recent global pandemic.
The authors of the report blame stress, confinement, shedding and poor nutrition as contributing factors that result in increased coronavirus rates in animals taken from nature to human restaurants.
According to the study, “researchers collected samples at 70 sites in Vietnam, and detected six distinct taxonomic units of known coronaviruses. There is no current evidence to suggest these particular viruses were a human-health threat, but the laboratory techniques used in the study can be utilized to detect emerging or unknown viruses in humans, wildlife and livestock in the future.
Sarah Olson, the associate director of WCS’s Health Program who co-wrote the study, told The Post she was shocked by the results.
“I was expecting maybe 10 percent [of animals found at restaurants to be ill]. But to see over 50 percent is shocking,” Olson said.
“Our study shows how the run-of-the-mill viruses can amplify to a potential spillover into people,” she added. “This issue is more than just wet markets, it’s everything that leads up to them. We need to protect local subsistence hunting but stop the major trade for urban markets. We can decrease the risk of a pandemic on a global scale if we do that.”
Peter Knights, CEO of WildAid, a conservation organization that works to end illegal poaching and consumption of wild animals, agrees. He told The Post in May: “Sixty percent of infectious diseases originate in animals and are transferred to humans … and the risks are increasing with deforestation and climate change. When someone … builds roads into the wild, we come into contact with species we aren’t supposed to. Humans then drive these animals into big cities and sell them at live markets, where the risks increase when you stress these animals or mix these species together.”
Olson also warned: “We are repeating the same mistakes of the past if we don’t take a hard look at human behaviors that breach natural boundaries. [Eating these animals in cities] is not natural. It’s a luxury and not a necessity.”
If this trade isn’t stopped, “worst-case scenario, we would be … on track to see another one of these outbreaks,” she said.
“The way these cross-species jump happened is by mixing species that wouldn’t mix in the wild. They transmit diseases in close contact and under stress,” said Knights, who has started a petition calling for the end of wildlife poaching. “The wildlife trade is associated with disease. SARS [allegedly] came from bats via civets cats, HIV was [allegedly] transferred to humans via the bushmeat trade in monkeys and chimpanzees, and now COVID-19 is believed to come from bats, possibly transferred through pangolins.”
And while China and Vietnam have promised to do better, viruses still lurk.
On Thursday it was announced that the trading sections for meat and seafood in Beijing’s wholesale food market were “severely contaminated with the new coronavirus,” according to Reuters.
This comes on the heels of earlier claims by scientists that an apocalyptic bird flu could wipe out half of humanity as environmentalists warned of deadlier pandemics if humans keep destroying the environment.
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