Pangolins and pandemics: digging for the roots of COVID-19

Overcoming COVID-19 may be our most immediate concern, but it would be a mistake to think it will all be over when this pandemic ends. Failure to deal with pressing environmental issues, global warming, the destruction of the world’s forests and the population explosion, will lead to more catastrophes. We still have time, but barely.

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Wet market with wildlife products in China. (Photo: William Dowell)

While reporting in Southeast Asia during the 1990s, I used to stop at a place we called the ‘Endangered Species Restaurant.’ It was on the road from the Thai border back to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. The corpse of a monkey was crucified to a wooden frame that leaned against the wall. The monkey, along with various body parts of other unidentified animals, made up the luncheon menu. 

Later, while reporting in the Congo, I observed the natives along the Congo River eating live caterpillars, doused with what looked like red pepper, the local equivalent of popcorn.  Unusual animals weren’t the only target in a Third World environment hungry for protein.  My wife’s father had worked as a bush doctor in the Congo during the 1950’s. One of his tasks was to inspect meat in the local market with a sharp eye for anything that looked vaguely human.  The global palate is clearly a lot more complicated than the bland fast food fare you find at a McDonalds or Burger King.  

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Villager in the Congo region preparing crocodile meat. (Photo: William Dowell)

The Chinese, like many cultures, have a reputation for being ready to experiment with their food sources and their local markets can include wild animals, just as African populations eat “bush meat”. The COVID-19 pandemic may provide a new incentive for many people, including Chinese, to consider more carefully where the food on their plate actually comes from.

Wildlife markets may prove responsible…

While scientists are still working to identify the cause of the outbreak, major attention has focused on the pangolin, a scaly anteater, highly sought after in parts of Asia for its delicate culinary qualities as well as for its scales that are valued by Chinese traditional medicine, and which is sold in “wet” markets near Wuhan.  Traces of viruses that match COVID-19 have also shown up in snakes, that were sold as food in the market, as well as in bats.

Bats are known to serve as a reservoir for coronaviruses. Over time they have built an immunity and can carry the virus without being harmed by it. The pangolin may have served as an intermediate amplifier. Its reduced immunity allowed the virus to expand in it until an unsuspecting consumer at it.  There have also been suggestions that the virus might have escaped after an accident in one of Wuhan’s two biological research laboratories in Wuhan. Both handle dangerous viruses similar to COVID-19. US intelligence experts have tended to downplay that as unlikely given the presence of the virus in animals that were being sold for food. The consensus favours the pangolin as the vector, and it very likely emerged from a “wet” market in Wuhan, China.

So-called ‘bush meat’ is regularly sold in African markets and is already regarded as a source of Ebola and other viruses. (Photo: William Dowell)

The consumption of wildlife, of course, is nothing unusual in certain parts of the world, whether iguanas (often referred to as ‘spring chicken’) in the Caribbean, song birds in Italy, or bear and deer meat in the United States. In Africa, particularly in central and western parts of the continent such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and Mali, so-called ‘bush meat’ – an extremely valued source of protein for poor people – is regularly sold in markets or along roads. This consists of wild animals, usually cooked, dried or smoked (the best way for preserving the meat) ranging from cane rat and fruit bats to monkeys, snakes, duikers and turtles. According to conservation groups, even chimpanzees and gorrillas are killed for ‘bush meat’.

These markets traditionally sell both domestic and wild animals that are alive, destined to be slaughtered on the spot and then cooked and eaten. Especially in China, freshness is highly valued when it comes to food. Snakes, another delicacy sold in the market, were also an early suspect. Like the pangolin, the snakes appeared to have traces of viruses similar to SARS-CoV-2, the cause of COVID-19. On the basis of previous coronavirus epidemics, bats are a further suspect as the original source but do not feature as an edible item on the stalls though they could pass the virus to other animals kept in such close quarters.

…but the Chinese are failing to take proper action

China initially tried to shut down its wet markets shortly after the coronavirus outbreak hit Wuhan, but then gradually relented. The markets, which resemble the livestock sections of farmer’s markets in western countries, are too pervasive and are the main source of food for too many people to close them down completely. This is despite calls by anti-wildlife trafficking groups, such as the World Conservation Society in New York, for the permanent closure of all wildlife markets given the threat of passing on viral diseases like SARS-CoV-2.

The real problem, of course, is the unsanitary conditions that exist in many of these poorly controlled wet markets. The animals are kept in cages, often stacked one on top of the other. Captive animals are frequently splattered with urine and faeces from the cages above them, and all the slaughtering at one place can often occur in the same place. The danger of contamination with an unexpected virus increases substantially when wildlife is crowded next to domestic animals.

The pangolin holds a special place on the endangered species list. Estimates suggest that pangolins account for up to 20 per cent of the illegal trade in threatened species. During the 1990s you could buy pangolin meat for around $7 a pound. The price today is easily $300. Specialists note that young Chinese do not eat wildlife as much as their parents these days. But for some in China’s fast-growing middle class, with money to burn, serving a pangolin for dinner is a powerful status symbol, proof that one has arrived.

The pangolin is found in parts of Africa, Indian subcontinent and southeast Asia, including China. (Photo: World Wildlife Fund)

China has repeatedly banned the sale of pangolins, along with other endangered species, but outlawing the animal has only increased its market value. TRAFFIC, a network monitoring the global trade in wildlife, reported that despite repeatedly outlawing its sale, some 90,000 pangolins were smuggled illegally into China between 2007 and 2016. And mainland China is not the only destination for the illegal trade. 

In January 2019, according to the New York Times, a shipment of nine tonnes of pangolin scales, taken from roughly 14,000 animals, was seized in Hong Kong. That was followed a month later with the confiscation of some 33 tonnes of pangolin meat in Malaysia and then, two months later, 14 tonnes in Singapore. China’s trade in wildlife products coupled with COVID-19 also has other forms of global impact.

COVID-19: Only the latest disaster in the way we treat nature

Everyone was in on the game. No one thought it would trigger a worldwide pandemic that would cost trillions of dollars and possibly alter the global economy.

The pandemic, which began in Wuhan, is just the latest indication of a catastrophic reaction to human encroachment on nature and, more specifically, increasingly stressed endangered species. There have been repeated warnings that disruption of the world’s natural habitat threatens what could amount to a sixth extinction. The wanton destruction is not without consequences. Estimates are that up to 70 per cent of the new diseases appearing on the planet are zoonotic; in other words, carried by animals.

The destruction of an estimated 20 million hectares of forest every year is a likely source of even further catastrophe. (Photo: Courtesy Rain Forest Trust, Kostadin Luchansky).

While the impact of COVID-19 has proven catastrophic, scientists warn that as many as 1.7 million viruses may as yet be unrecorded. Widespread destruction of rainforests and woodlands, the unprecedented expansion of global tourism and increased crowding in cities have naturally exposed more people to new viruses and exotic diseases than at any previous time in history.

Inexpensive worldwide air transport makes it possible for a virus to travel to almost any location on the planet in a few hours. Pollution, climate change, an uncontrolled population explosion over the last century and the loss of natural habitat are all combining to place an unendurable stress on the planet’s ecosystem.

How can something so small disrupt our lives?

The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates how a submicroscopic particle that is not even really alive (they need a living organism to replicate) can totally disrupt the planet.  A retrovirus is literally nothing more than a strand of RNA (ribonucleic acid) accompanied by a few proteins and wrapped in a protective coating. Simple soapy water disrupts the coating, rendering the virus ineffective. That is why frequent hand washing is so important in the pandemic.

Under an electron microscope, the proteins are seen as the little knobs that stick out from the body of the virus. In a number of ways, a retrovirus is like a few bits of computer programming. It can’t reproduce itself. Instead, it penetrates the nucleus of a cell.  An enzyme, known as a reverse transcriptase, converts the RNA strand to DNA, which then hijacks the cell getting it to reproduce the virus along with the altered cell.  

At first, the COVID-19 virus, more formally known as SARS-CoV-2, was dismissed as little more than a bad case of the flu. It is now emerging as a great deal more than that.

Worldwide, the virus has killed more than 170,000 people and infected more than 2.4 million. While many do survive, scientists are learning that the damage that covid-19 does to the human body is far more terrifying than originally realized.  The patients who succumb to the virus experience a lack of oxygen which eventually allows a liquid buildup in their lungs that literally drowns them.

The COVID-19 virus. It can’t reproduce itself, but penetrates the nucleus of a cell.(Thailand Medical News)

The only medical solution at that stage is to artificially put the patient into a coma and then plant a tube in the trachea and have a respirator take over the patient’s breathing. Nearly half the patients never wake up again. 

The virus enters the human body through the lungs, but it then immediately bonds with an enzyme known as an angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2), which exists on the surface of the lungs and on other organs, as well. Once that is accomplished, the virus can easily enter the blood stream and pass to other organs in the body including the liver.  That explains why different symptoms as well as damage to the heart, kidneys and bowels have been reported along with problems with inflammation throughout the body.   

Despite incompetent political leaders, pandemics are actually well-understood

Just as the virus hijacks living cells, this depends for its effectiveness as an engine of destruction on the vulnerabilities and habits of people who have become the major agents of contagion. Coronavid-19 is extremely dangerous precisely because the main actor responsible for spreading the contamination now is an ordinary human being. Getting people to realize that is not an easy proposition.  When the president of the United States faces a situation in which more than 40,000 Americans have died and he still refuses to wear a protective mask in public, despite the advice from some of his country’s medical experts, you might think that something is terribly wrong with the people we depend on to lead us .

The fact is that pandemics are very well understood. They follow predictable patterns that are relatively easy to model.  The first real breakthrough occurred in 1927, when two British scientists, A. G. McKendrick and W.O. Kermack, published a paper entitled A Mathematical Contribution to the Theory of Epidemics. Their most important insight was that the end of an epidemic has nothing to do with how many people have died, or how many people are still susceptible to be infected. The only thing that counts is the number of susceptible individuals who come in contact with each person who is infected with the virus. 

The critical formula that determines this is usually referred to as “R0” – pronounced “R-naught”, the contagion coefficient .  “R” represents the reproductive capacity of the virus. The “0” or “naught” represents the number of people likely to come into contact with someone carrying the virus.  If you can reduce that number to one or less, you are home free.  If not, a slightly larger number than one will dramatically increase the rate at which the epidemic spreads.

Expanded testing for COVID-19 is a crucial part of the battle against the virus. (Photo: UN)

Testing is the key

Without a vaccine, which could take a year to develop, the best way to reduce the contagion coefficient to less than one is to identify everyone carrying the virus and to isolate them before they can infect anyone else. The only way to do that is to institute widespread testing so that you have an accurate picture of exactly who is carrying the virus. (See Andy Cohen’s article on Switzerland’s failure to implement a proper testing strategy)

All this may sound impossible, but it is not. It is how Singapore, Korea and Hong Kong were able to rapidly put a halt to the outbreak of SARS.  Although it is difficult to believe right now, the pandemic will eventually end. When it does, it would be a mistake to think that the problem is over. The rampant natural destruction, which made the outbreak possible, will continue unless serious attention is paid to re-establishing a sustainable environmental equilibrium.

When a virus encounters a susceptible host with little or no immunity, it expands out of control. There is literally nothing that can stop it until it so overwhelms everything around it that there is no place left to go, nothing left to infect. The only option left for the virus is to implode, killing its host and itself along with it. There is a current theory that that pattern is not limited only to viruses. 

The human population, which now includes nearly 8 billion people, has also been expanding at a rate that also seems out of control, even though the rate of increase has slowed somewhat in the last few years. As far as nature goes, there is literally nothing standing in our way except the limited resources of the planet. (See Tira Shubart’s article on how the recently returned astronauts in the International Space Station viewed the impact of COVID-19 from outer space)

Astronauts from the International Space Station who recently returned to earth in mid-April 2020 said that even from outer space they could witness a far cleaner environment inadvertently brought about by the spread of coronavirus resulting in the closure of polluting factories and a staggering drop in road transport meaning massively reduced C02 emissions. (Photo: NASA)

If we continue to destroy the world’s natural habitat and drive the rest of nature towards extinction, humankind may reach the point at which existence is no longer sustainable. We will undoubtedly get through this pandemic. What we should be concerned with is the next cataclysm which might take place if we don’t re-establish a sustainable balance between ourselves and the environment on which we depend.

William Dowell is the Americas editor of Global Geneva. As a foreign correspondent he has reported widely across the globe for news organizations such as TIME, ABC News and NBC. Dowell is also co-author with Winter Nie of the book In the Shadow of the Dragon: The Global Expansion of Chinese Companies –and How It Will Change Business Forever“. Dowell is also a a co-editor of The Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan.

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