CNN: Don't blame bats for coronavirus, blame humans (and wet markets)

CNN published a new piece today in which a wildlife epidemiologist in London argues it’s wrong to blame bats for the coronavirus. Instead, Andrew Cunningham says we should blame people and how they interact with the bats. What he’s saying sounds a bit silly at first, but he’s absolutely right in the case of the coronavirus. The problem here isn’t bats so much as the wildlife food industry in China.

Reclusive, nocturnal, numerous — bats are a possible source of the coronavirus. Yet some scientists concur they are not to blame for the transfer of the disease that’s changing daily life — humans are…

“The underlying causes of zoonotic spillover from bats or from other wild species have almost always — always — been shown to be human behavior,” said Cunningham. “Human activities are causing this.”…

In the likely epicenter of the virus — the so-called wet-markets of Wuhan, China — where wild animals are held captive together and sold as delicacies or pets, a terrifying mix of viruses and species can occur.

“If they are being shipped or held in markets, in close proximity to other animals or humans,” said Cunningham, “then there is a chance those viruses are being shed in large numbers.” He said the other animals in a market like that are also more vulnerable to infection as they too are stressed.

All of this should serve as a corrective to TV talking heads like Richard Engel who said earlier this week that coronavirus was “a bat virus, not a China virus.” But the responsibility for “zoonotic spillover” falls on the communist Chinese government which has encouraged this trade, not on the animals.

I’ve already shared this excellent Vox video once so if you’ve already seen it you can skip ahead. This clip clearly explains how wildlife markets were enshrined in Chinese law and how, even after the SARS virus arose in a very similar market nearly two decades ago, China has refused to put an end to this practice.

Josh Rogin wrote a piece yesterday arguing that it was important to distinguish between the Chinese communist party and the Chinese people when assigning blame. He has a point, though I think these markets continue to exist because there is a market for exotic foods. It’s not the average Chinese person who is eating this stuff it’s the Chinese equivalent of foodies, people with more money and social power than the average citizen. They and the people making a living off this trade have some pull with the government. At some point, the regime just needs to tell these people it’s over. No bat soup for you.

Despite the best effort of the American media to change the subject to racism and identity politics, the real problem here is a policy put in place and allowed to continue by communist China. If we want to prevent the next pandemic we should be applying pressure for China and other countries to shut down these wet markets once and for all:

The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, in effect the executive committee of the Chinese Communist Party, in late February issued an edict banning the country’s “wet markets,” including those in Wuhan, the source of the current COVID-19 outbreak. The statement notes that “it is necessary to strengthen market supervision, resolutely ban and severely crack down on illegal wildlife markets and trade, and control major public health risks from the source.” The Straits Times of Singapore has reported that eight laws have been passed in the last week. We have no details on the contents of the legislation. It’s too soon to know, though, whether we have been down this road before.

After the SARS outbreak in 2003, which was traced to a wet market in the southern Guangdong Province, a temporary ban on wet markets and the wild-animal industry were put in place. In July of that year, the World Health Organization declared the SARS virus contained, and in August the Chinese government lifted the ban…

There should be permanent closure of the wet markets, given the government’s obvious inability or unwillingness to regulate them. Such a comprehensive approach would be a reversal of decades of government policy and market practice, but when we get through this crisis and the toll it will take on the world, we will owe it to the memory of those we lose that there be a global, sustained push to see these practices ended, everywhere.

Finally, this clip is nearly half an hour long and comes from 60 Minutes in Australia. It features an undercover visit to a wet market in Thailand similar to the one in Wuhan where the coronavirus originated. I’ve got this cued up about halfway in, but if you have time the whole thing is worth watching. As you’ll see, in the center of this market, they find one shop selling cats from Africa and monkeys from South America all caged within a few feet of one another. These are animals which would never encounter one another in the wild. We have no idea what knew forms of zoonotic spillover makets like this will create next.

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