It's possible that the Coronavirus spread between species on farms that supply live civets, snakes, and bamboo rats.
Exotic Farm Experiences
Peter Li describes a pre-pandemic visit to one of China's many small businesses specialized in breeding wild animals for meat as "a transformed pigsty." According to Li, a China policy expert at Humane Society International and a professor of East Asian studies at the University of Houston-Downtown, some ten civets, wild animals with long, hairy tails and face markings similar to a raccoon's, lived penned together for eight to 12 months before being sold. He claims that the risk of disease transmission is high because wild animals are held in close quarters and sometimes in unsanitary conditions.
Farm to Restaurant Delicacies
High-end restaurateurs are likely to have used some of the civets, which are considered a delicacy in China, as ingredients in a pricey soup with snake meat.
Prior to the pandemic, such farms kept China's wildlife markets stocked with live animals, mostly for sale to restaurants, such as civets, bamboo rats, crocodiles, porcupines, and snakes. The small farms, which were encouraged by government leaders to relieve hardship in rural areas with few other job alternatives, numbered in the thousands and employed millions. However, by the end of 2020, the government declared that all of these farms had been closed as part of its reaction to the novel Coronavirus.
Today, a WHO team is looking at whether wildlife farms are a missing link in the Coronavirus's hop from its possible host animals-bats-to humans at Wuhan's Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, which was related to a cluster of the first human infections. (The team is also looking at potential connections to a Wuhan business connected to an early patient who had no ties to Huanan.)
Peter Daszak, a British disease ecologist at the EcoHealth Alliance in the United States and a member of the WHO delegation that traveled to China in January 2021 to investigate the pandemic's origins, told NPR last week that the WHO team discovered new evidence indicating that wildlife farms in southern China had been supplying animals to Huanan market, bolstering the theory that the farms may have helped start.
The WHO team has yet to have documentation or verification of contaminated animals on the farms or at the Huanan auction. The group refused to comment ahead of a report outlining their results, which is due in the coming weeks, and members of the delegation did not respond to requests for comment.
Obtaining such facts could be unlikely considering the time period between late 2019, when the disease was related to the market, and December 2020, when China claims it has shut down all of its food-supplying wildlife farms. Still, studying the COVID-19 pandemic and fighting possible zoonotic outbreaks necessitates filling in the holes on how the virus could have made its way to humans.
Beginning of a Pandemic
Virologists discovered a bat virus nearly similar to the Coronavirus circulating in humans in Yunnan, the southern Chinese province where many of the now-closed wildlife farms are located. Scientists claim that certain wildlife farms sold animals that could be infected with other coronaviruses, such as civets, and that these animals could be vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
"Potentially, some of these animals were contaminated at those farms and then took the virus into the market," Peter Ben Embarek, the Danish food safety scientist in charge of the WHO delegation, told Science in February after returning from China adding that further research was required.
Since several wildlife farms bordered wilderness areas, captured animals may have potentially become poisoned by infected bats' urine. Furthermore, according to Li, some farms' ostensible breeding practices served as a front for capturing and selling wild animals masquerading as farm-bred animals.
The pathogen may have hopped from animal to animal after incubating in a captive animal-whether that animal came from the wild or was bred on a farm-mutating in the process. The virus may have developed to the point that it could infect yet another species: humans, by the time the animal arrived at Huanan or other Wuhan markets.
Wildlife farms are a possible cause of spillover. Still, virus hunter W. Ian Lipkin, director of Columbia University's Center for Infection and Immunity, who was operating in China in January 2020, says he'd be "really shocked" if there's clear proof of it.
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