Information as at 21 April 2020
The world is in shock as the latest deadly coronavirus spreads. COVID-19 is likely to have resulted from the sale of wildlife in a live animal market. Wildlife trade has always been lethal to animals, and now it has caused a global health catastrophe. Here are answers to some of the questions you may have about COVID-19, its connection to wildlife trade, how you can help, and how you can be best prepared to protect any companion animals who share your home.
What are coronaviruses and the link to animals?
Around 75% of all new, emerging, or re-emerging infectious diseases affecting humans are zoonotic diseases. A zoonosis is an infectious disease caused by bacteria, viruses, or parasites that spread from non-human animals (usually vertebrates) to humans. Emerging zoonoses such as COVID-19 are newly appearing in a population and rapidly increasing in incidence or geographical range.
According to the Department of Health, coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that can cause respiratory infections ranging from the common cold to more serious diseases. Other coronaviruses that are also zoonotic diseases due to their animal origin include SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) which began in China likely originating from consumption of the palm civet cat, and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) was a coronavirus transmitted to humans allegedly from camels in the Middle East.
Coronavirus disease 2019, or COVID-19, is the disease caused by a new coronavirus, first reported in December 2019 in Wuhan City in China. COVID-19 is likely to have resulted from the sale of wildlife in a live animal market. Peer-reviewed science has demonstrated that the virus may have originated in Chinese horseshoe bats and been passed via an intermediate wildlife host to humans while in close proximity in wet markets. The species that acted as an intermediate host has not been identified for certain, although one research group in China has suggested it may be pangolins.
HSI has prepared a detailed White Paper into the role of wildlife markets and zoonotic diseases including COVID-19. The White Paper has been translated into several languages and sent to 188 governments with our recommendations to bring wildlife trade to an end.
The media have used the term “wet market” in reference to wildlife markets; however, this term refers to markets in East and Southeast Asia where items such as fruits, vegetables, and meat are sold. Wet markets contrast to “dry markets” where rice and dry goods are sold. Some wet markets have wildlife markets in them. We are asking governments to ban wildlife trade, including wildlife markets; we are not asking governments to ban wet markets.
What is the connection between COVID-19 and wildlife trade?
In many countries, wildlife is legally and illegally traded, and largely unregulated. A 2019 study in the journal of Science estimated that wildlife trade included 5,600 species, nearly one-fifth of the world’s known vertebrate animals. In some countries it presents an even greater human health risk when the animals are transported and sold at live animal markets, or ‘wet’ markets.
At the live animal market in Wuhan City where COVID-19 was likely to have originated, there is a single meat shop selling live peacocks, rats, foxes, crocodiles, wolf cubs, turtles, snakes, wild pigs, and more. The store advertised feet, blood, intestines and other body parts from over 70 species. These live animal markets offering animal parts for human consumption present the perfect breeding ground for new zoonotic viruses. With animals of various species, from turtles, to birds, to pangolins, crammed into tiny cages that are stacked one on top of the other in unhygienic and stressful conditions, they are often disease prone while they await slaughter and sale to the public.
How can another deadly outbreak be prevented?
Wildlife trading is a multi-billion dollar business and the animals are not only traded for food, but also for trinkets, traditional medicines and display. Wildlife trading for all purposes must be prohibited to prevent another zoonotic virus outbreak. In addition to taking animals out of the wild, captive breeding of wild species also poses serious risks. Civets, tigers and bears are all extensively farmed in some countries. HSI is urging governments to introduce a permanent ban on wildlife markets as well as the commercial wildlife breeding, transport and trade that supplies them. Otherwise another deadly pandemic like COVID-19 could eventuate at any time.
What are countries doing?
CHINA: HSI has welcomed the response from the Government of China who issued a ban on the sale of wild animals, captive bred and wild caught, for human consumption. Further action is crucial to ban all commercial wildlife activity through the revision of China’s Wildlife Protection Law. As at 21 April 2020 the cities of Zhuhai and Shenzen have announced bans on consumption of dogs and cats and the China Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs says that dogs and cats are no longer to be considered livestock across the whole country.
VIET NAM: Viet Nam are also making some positive progress to curb trade. An open letter was sent by fourteen conservation organisations, including HSI, to Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc to request his government take strong and sustainable actions to halt all illegal wildlife trade and consumption in Viet Nam. Prime Minister Phuc responded promptly “by tasking the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Improvement (MARD) with formulating directives to ban the trade and usage of wildlife and submit them to the federal government for review by April 1.”
INDIA: Following the coronavirus pandemic the Mizoram government in India has removed dogs from the list of animals allowed for slaughter by amending their Animal Slaughter Act 2013. It is a welcomed move but their state government needs to act to stop the sale and consumption of dog meat which is rampant there.
INDONESIA: Home to hundreds of “extreme” animal markets where conditions favour the emergence of new diseases, many regions in Indonesia continue to allow the sale and slaughter of wild animals in public, unsanitary conditions. The trade of wild animals operates alongside that of dogs and cats which have already been shown to present a risk of rabies transmission, so there urgent measures are required to ensure Indonesia’s animal markets don't become the next point of origin for a deadly virus like COVID-19.
In other countries where wildlife trade takes place such as Latin America, and West, Central and East Africa it also poses a very real threat to human health. HSI is calling for global action around the world.
How can I help?
HSI has been fighting to help bring an end to wildlife trade for decades, and now it is more important than ever to pressure governments to take urgent action to avoid another similar outbreak. New legislation and strict law enforcement is critical and we are working alongside our colleagues around the world to make that happen.
Join us here to send a letter to the embassies of some key countries where wild animal markets operate.
Can my pet get COVID-19?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Organisation for Animal Health have issued advisories saying there is no evidence at this time that companion animals can spread the COVID-19 virus. Please help to share this news to others. Canine coronavirus has been known for years and does not affect humans, nor can it be transmitted to humans. It is not COVID-19. Similarly, feline coronavirus is distinctly different and poses no risk to humans. There have been various reports of domestic animals testing positive for the virus after their owners were infected with COVID-19 in countries including New York, Belgium, and Hong Kong, but it remains that the dog and cat versions of coronavirus are not zoonotic and there is still no evidence that they pose any risk to humans. It is still advisable for people with the virus to limit contact with both people and animals or pets as a sensible precaution, and of course continue to follow stringent hand washing practices before and after contact with any people or animals within your household during periods of isolation. You can find the latest updates from the Australian Government on domestic animals and COVID-19 here: https://www.agriculture.gov.au/coronavirus/animals.
People have been afraid that companion animals could pass on the disease and this was leading to pet abandonment in some places. HSI has been a resource for Chinese groups in coordinating public education efforts since the COVID-19 virus broke out. We have been supporting HSI’s Chinese partner group Vshine to rescue abandoned dogs and to provide food and water for dogs and cats left behind when people have been evacuated and not able to return.
A member of Vshine, one of HSI’s partner groups in China, tends to a pet cat that was left behind during the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak.
What if my pet gets sick?
To effectively tackle the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, many governments around the world have taken restrictive measures to close non-essential businesses. Currently, veterinary activities have been designated as essential businesses, so if your pet requires attention please call your veterinary practice in the first instance. You can discuss the situation with them direct and if necessary arrange your visit whilst ensuring that you follow any specified precautionary measures to avoid further spread of COVID-19.
If I have a companion animal, do I need a ‘preparedness plan’?
Companion animals are precious members of our families. If you share your home with an animal don’t forget to have a plan in place to ensure they are cared for in the event you become unwell or are unable to be with them. We understand that not everyone has a personal support system or the financial means to meet these recommendations, but here are some suggested steps you can take as a guide:
If you have any difficulties creating your preparedness response, do reach out to local shelters or ask your veterinarian what support is available. During this crisis, there may be options such as donated supplies or subsidised veterinary services to help people care for and stay together with their pets.
Can Australian bats infect people or animals with COVID-19?
There is no risk of being infected with COVID-19 through an encounter with a bat in Australia as no Australian bat species (which includes flying-foxes or fruit bats) has been shown to carry the virus, and none have an overlapping range with Chinese horseshoe bat.
Misinformation surrounding the threat of Australian bats to people appears to have originated from viruses similar to the one that causes COVID-19 having been seen in Chinese horseshoe bats, a species facing far different circumstances in wet market environments in countries such as China.
While COVID-19 may have origins in Chinese horseshoe bats, it’s important to note that it was a combination of environmental damage, wildlife trade, wet markets and the climate crisis that turned a minor issue into a pandemic. The bats themselves are not to blame.
It’s true that various bat species carry a range of viruses, but these viruses remain hidden in bats’ bodies without harming humans. People raise the risk of transmission between species when they encroach on bats’ habitats or harvest bats for medicine or food. There is a much heightened risk when humans pack live bats into unsanitary conditions with other wild species that may serve as intermediate hosts.
What should I do if I see a bat?
Sit back and appreciate it, just don’t touch! Bats are amazing fruit crop and forest pollinating animals that deserve our unreserved appreciation. Bats are far, far more beneficial to humans, nature, and economies than any viral risk associated with them.
HSI is concerned about reports that emergency services are being overwhelmed by calls about bats during the COVID-19 crisis. These calls are likely due to misinformation being spread about risks bats pose to people, and are potentially jeopardising response times for critical patients as frontline responders brace for an increase in serious cases.
The calls may be due to heightened fear and confusion around Australian bat lyssavirus, which is present in an extremely small proportion of flying-foxes and can only transfer to humans through direct contact. Lyssaviruses are transmitted via a bite or scratch from an infected animal, meaning that by avoiding contact you are completely safe.
As there is a slight risk of disease transmission between humans and bats (though not for COVID-19 and bats in Australia!), bats should not be approached unless by a vaccinated wildlife carer. The negligible disease risk bats pose can increase slightly when they are stressed - as in situations where people are directly interfering with them and their habitat. But if we leave them alone and there is absolutely no need for concern, even if they're right outside your window.
 Jones KE, Patel N, Levy M, et al. Global trends in emerging infectious diseases. Nature 2008; 451:990-94.