Where did COVID-19 come from?

worker cleaning subway
© Workers clean a subway station in Brooklyn as New York City confronts the coronavirus outbreak on March 11, 2020. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

To end new zoonotic diseases like coronavirus COVID-19, humans need to start staying in their lanes.

In an article published by Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies in 2012, science journalist David Quammen wrote, "Experts believe the next deadly human pandemic will almost certainly be a virus that spills over from wildlife to humans."

Known as zoonotic diseases, Quammen wrote of recent wildlife-to-human outbreaks like SARS and Ebola, and noted that experts always wonder, "Is this one — or is that one — going to turn into the Next Big One?" The next big one meaning "a murderous pandemic that sweeps around the planet, killing millions of people, as the so-called 'Spanish' influenza did in 1918-19, as AIDS has been doing in slower motion, and as SARS might have done in 2003 if it hadn’t been stopped by fast science, rigorous measures of public health, and luck."

While it may be surprising at first to consider all these infections coming from animals; where else would they come from? Viruses don't come from outer space, after all. In fact, according to one study, 58 percent of all pathogen species infecting humans are zoonotic – while another study found that 72 percent of all recently emerged zoonotic pathogens have come from wildlife, noted Quammen. Everything from Ebola, Marburg and HIV to influenzas, West Nile virus, monkeypox, and SARS, have all originated in animals.

Now the question of the hour: How do these pathogens get from wildlife to humans? Through contact between people and wildlife. And why are these outbreaks becoming more frequent? Quammen explained:

We are interacting with wild animals and disrupting the ecosystems they inhabit to an unprecedented degree

Humans have become mad marauders, wrecking our way through nature with careless abandon. While of course we are part of nature and this is our home too, we have veered wildly off the track of how to cohabitate with the planet's other species. It is possible to live harmoniously with other species. Just one example is how First Nations in coastal Canada – over 13,000 years of habitation – have actually enhanced the forest where they live. But for the most part, we are not staying in our lane.

Zoonotic diseases happen through various types of contact between humans and wildlife; for the new coronavirus COVID-19, most experts agree that it came from human contact via a live animal market, one that trades in wildlife.

According to WCS, scientists from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control confirmed a live animal market teeming with a multitude of wildlife species as the origin of COVID-19. The scenario could have been as simple as someone at a market butchering or eating an animal with a coronavirus ... which then spilled into the human population and spread across the globe.

Dr. Christian Walzer, executive director of the WCS Health Program, says that it's integral that we start addressing our wildlife consumption habits.

“Governments must recognize the global public health threats of zoonotic diseases. It is time to close live animal markets that trade in wildlife, strengthen efforts to combat trafficking of wild animals, and work to change dangerous wildlife consumption behaviors, especially in cities," says Walzer. "It is essential to invest resources not only into discovering new viruses but more importantly in determining the epidemiological drivers of zoonotic spillover, amplification, and spread of infectious diseases.”

Walzer has asked governments to close live animal markets that trade in wild animals, whether the 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," he says. "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."

As Hoang Bich Thuy, Country Director of WCS Vietnam, puts it, “The world needs country after country stepping up to prevent future viral outbreaks by banning the trade and consumption of wildlife.”

“If just one country continues to allow the trade in wildlife," she says, "communities across the world will continue to suffer and pay the price.”

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Where did COVID-19 come from?
To end new zoonotic diseases like coronavirus (COVID-19), humans need to start staying in their lanes.

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