What You Need to Know About the COVID-19 Coronavirus

A Q&A with Dr. Christian Walzer, WCS Chief Global Veterinarian

January 28, 2020

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Credit: WCS Vietnam

Q: What is the main message from the Wildlife Conservation Society concerning the Wuhan coronavirus?

Chris Walzer: WCS is asking China and others governments to close live animal markets that trade in wild animals — whether these animals come from the wild or whether they are farmed-wildlife. There are three clear steps we are advocating for to prevent the spread of similar zoonotic diseases: close live animal markets that sell wildlife; strengthen efforts to combat trafficking of wild animals within countries and across borders; and work to change dangerous wildlife consumption behaviors, especially in cities.

Q: Won’t closing these markets hurt the poor?

Chris Walzer: No. Wildlife populations are being depleted as they are poached and hunted. Viral outbreaks lead to mass culling of domestic animals, which increases the cost of basic animal protein, hitting the poor the hardest.

Q: Why do we suspect the Wuhan coronavirus is a spill-over from animals to humans?

Chris Walzer: Scientists from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control have confirmed a live animal market teeming with a multitude of wildlife species as the origin of the Wuhan coronavirus. Dr. Zhong Nanshan, director of the China State Key Laboratory of Respiratory Disease, who became famous for leading the fight against SARS 17 years ago, pinpointed on Chinese state television the likely source of the new coronavirus as wildlife. Environmental samples from the Wuhan market have been linked to wildlife.

“It is hard to design more perfect conditions for new viruses to emerge than market systems such as that in Wuhan.”

Chris Walzer: It is hard to design more perfect conditions for new viruses to emerge than market systems such as that in Wuhan: Tightly pack together a variety of species from around the country or the world and transport them long distances directly into large markets. Ensure that these massively stressed and immuno-compromised wild animals are in close proximity to domestic and farmed animals. Then distribute these animals out to major urban populations for consumption.

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Credit: WCS Vietnam

Q: What action has the Chinese government taken about these markets with this outbreak?

Chris Walzer: The Chinese government is to be applauded for acting quickly, as three government agencies took the first step, announcing a nationwide ban prohibiting all wild animal trading activities with immediate effect. This includes not only wet markets, but supermarkets restaurants and e-commerce platforms. The announcement also stated that “any violation of the provisions of this announcement shall be investigated and dealt with severely in accordance with the law and regulations.” However, this is not enough, as the ban currently only covers the period until “the epidemic situation is lifted nationwide.” It must be permanent.

Q: Is it a common occurrence for viruses to be transmitted from animals to humans?

Chris Walzer: The resulting re-assortment and exchange of viral components between species at live animal markets is a major source of new viruses. These can be zoonotic, i.e., transmitted from animals to humans (e.g., Avian Influenza, SARS, MERS), and subsequently successfully mutate so that they can transmit between humans, creating the conditions for a rapid global pandemic.

WATCH: An interview with WCS’s Dr. Christian Walzer to discuss the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak.

“There are three clear steps we are advocating to prevent the spread of similar zoonotic diseases (transmitted from animals to humans).”

Chris Walzer: Similar markets occur in cities across other Asian countries and if these persist, and human consumption of wildlife goes on, then we will continue to face heightened risks from emerging new viruses, potentially more lethal.

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Credit: Elizabeth L. Bennett/WCS

Q: What do the people in China and the China media think about closing these markets?

Chris Walzer: A large and growing number of people in China support closing these markets. On Chinese social media, support for the issue has been among the highest trending topics on Weibo (China’s most popular microblog site) over the last week, with the hashtag #TheSourceoftheNewCoronavirusIsWildAnimals viewed 1.2 billion times. The hashtag #NationalWildlifeTradingIsBannedUntiltheEpidemicisOver has amassed 400 million views over 24 hours since it was announced, and the view of Chinese netizens is clear: “It should be permanently banned. Do you want to have another epidemic?”; “Reject wild meat, ban forever and punish offenders severely”; “It is for the sake of human life, health, safety, and maintenance of natural harmony that wildlife trading activities should be permanently banned from now on.”

“It is for the sake of human life, health, safety, and maintenance of natural harmony that wildlife trading activities should be permanently banned from now on.”

Q: Where can I read more about the spill-over from animals to humans in connection to the Wuhan coronavirus?

The New York Times: China’s Omnivorous Markets Are in the Eye of a Lethal Outbreak Once Again
The Washington Post: Coronavirus outbreak underscores potential health risks in China’s wild animal trade
The Washington Post: China temporarily bans wildlife trade in wake of outbreak
The Guardian: Calls for global ban on wild animal markets amid coronavirus outbreak
The Wall Street Journal: Abolish Asia’s ‘Wet Markets,’ Where Pandemics Breed (op-ed by Christian Walzer and Aili Kang)

For additional information, read WCS’s original statement on the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak HERE and our demand for ban on the sale of wildlife in markets, restaurants, and over E-commerce of HERE, or visit our website.

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WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.

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