With the constant string of coronavirus coverage seizing social media, news outlets and pretty much every aspect of everyday life, citizens around the world are turning to the experts for information. While many Americans are focused on the future, whether it be economically, socially or medically, there are experts and scientists behind the scenes looking to the past. Finding the source of this virus will help ensure that another outbreak of this magnitude does not happen again, and many experts are investigating wildlife exploitation as a possible cause.

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The beginning of COVID-19

When the Chinese government first alerted the World Health Organization about the virus on December 31, 2019, a wet market in Wuhan was quickly identified as the likely source. Out of the first 41 initial patients reported with the disease, 27 had been either inside or exposed to the market. The world had already seen something similar in 2002, when the virus causing the SARS disease had its origin linked to a similar market in Southern China, eventually spreading to 29 countries and killing about 800 people. The SARS outbreak began when bats were linked to the spread of a virus in civet cats transferred to humans by consumption. Similarly, the MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) outbreak in 2017 spread from bats to camels to humans.

Related: Coronavirus and its impact on carbon emissions

The wildlife trade in Asia often includes the selling and transporting of animals while they are still alive, making it particularly risky to human health. Legalization of the wildlife farming industry in China to help curb the poverty levels decades ago meant that smaller farms that caught and sold wildlife, such as turtles and snakes, were growing in operation and eventually selling their animals at the same wet markets along with conventional livestock, such as pigs and chickens. Eventually, endangered animals began showing up in markets illegally, leading to even more exotic animal interactions with humans.

horseshoe bat hanging in a cave

Finding the source of this coronavirus

According to the CDC, the exact source of the COVID-19 virus remains unknown, though they suspect it was caused by an animal virus that mutated and adapted to infect and spread between humans. “Public health officials and partners are working hard to identify the source of COVID-19,” the CDC reported. “The first infections were linked to a live animal market, but the virus is now spreading from person to person. The coronavirus most similar to the virus causing COVID-19 is the one that causes SARS.”

When the virus was first detected, DNA experts suggested that the origin of COVID-19 was likely related to bats, specifically, as was the case with SARS. A Nature study published in early February 2020 pointed to these winged animals as the most likely indirect source of the new coronavirus, which at that time had only been confirmed in about 10 countries.

New evidence has suggested that it may have spread from a pangolin, the most heavily trafficked animal in the world, after a virus sickening Malayan pangolins was found to be almost identical to the coronavirus detected in sick humans. Dr. Kristian Anderson of the Scripps Research Institute told the New York Times that while none of her data suggested that pangolins served as an intermediate host, that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible. “Dr. Andersen said there are several paths the new virus could have taken. Assuming that it began with a bat virus, it could have jumped directly to humans, although that didn’t happen in the other coronavirus outbreaks of SARS and MERS,” the New York Times reported. “Or it could have passed from a bat to another animal, one of the many that humans hunt, raise for food and sell in markets.”

What makes COVID-19 different

Dr. Fauci told PBS that animal viruses mutate all the time, though they rarely have any significant impact on humans. Sometimes the mutations allow for single “dead-end” transmissions to individuals without the ability to spread from human to human directly, as was the case with the H5N1 and H7N9 influenzas (also known as the “bird flu”). “But rarely, animal viruses mutate and the mutation allows them not only to jump species to humans, but to also efficiently spread from human to human,” Dr. Fauci explained. “That is what we saw in SARS and now we see this with 2019-nCoV, which seems to have adapted itself very well to human to human transmission, as per what is happening in China.”

Wildlife connection

In an interview with Vox, EcoHealth Alliance veterinarian and epidemiologist Jonathan Epstein said that learning more about the connection between zoonotic (meaning the disease originated in animals) pathogens in humans is instrumental in ensuring that outbreaks like this one don’t occur in the future. He was involved in finding the animal source for the SARS outbreak back in 2002. “Right now, we have a lot of attention focused on containing this outbreak, which is spreading from person to person, but a critical question we still need to understand is, ‘How did the first person get infected with this?’” he told Vox. “Because that’s where we need to focus efforts to make sure that that doesn’t happen again.” According to Epstein, about half of known human pathogens are zoonotic. Even more concerning, three-quarters of emerging diseases are zoonotic, and most of those come from wild animals.

There are also a number of experts who suggest that humanity’s destruction of animal habitats is partly to blame. Back in 2008, a team led by chair of ecology and biodiversity at UCL Kate Jones found that 60% of the 335 diseases identified between 1960 and 2004 came from animals. Jones linked these zoonotic diseases to both environmental changes and human behaviors. Ecological disruption, urbanization and population growth were all driving factors bringing humans and livestock closer and closer to the types of wild animals that they had never been exposed to before.

Looking toward the future

When the latest coronavirus outbreak began, the central government in Beijing issued a temporary ban on wild animal trading, but the ban was only designed to stay in effect until the epidemic situation was lifted globally. The London-based nonprofit group Environmental Investigation Agency has even found evidence that online sellers in Asia were attempting to sell illegal medicines containing wild animal parts as cures for COVID-19.

Clearly, this is not the first virus to be linked to wildlife, and conservationists and scientists around the world are calling for a permanent end to the global wildlife trade in order to stop the next epidemic before it begins. Others are supporting monitoring captive breeding of certain species or, at the very least, a trade ban on specific high-risk animals. For many experts who specialize in animal welfare, the issue has superseded mere conservation and transformed into an issue of public health and biosafety. According to a statement released in February 2020 by the National People’s Congress, officials in Beijing have already drafted legislation to ban wildlife trade and consumption in China.

Images via CDC and João Manuel Lemos Lima