World Health Organization's COVID-19 origins report says wildlife trade and fur factory farming industry likely candidates

By : Humane Society International March 31, 2021

Wildlife markets and fur factory farms worldwide are a petri dish for the next global pandemic and must be banned, says HSI

The World Health Organization has published its report, WHO-convened Global Study of the Origins of SARS-CoV-2, following its joint mission in China and identified fur farming alongside wildlife trade as areas of interest in the search for the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. The Joint WHO-China Study suggests that wild animals intensively bred on farms for human consumption and fur fashion could have become infected at the farms and then been transported to a wildlife wet market where the outbreak began.

Market traders display, sell and butcher a variety of wild and domestic animal species including badgers, bamboo rats, snakes, crocodiles and raccoon dogs alongside rabbits, pigs and chickens. Several of the species observed are known to be susceptible to SARS viruses, including mink, raccoon dogs and foxes. These animals are farmed in their millions on China's fur farms.

The Animal and Environmental Studies section of the report states that the possible pathways of emergence considered to be "likely to very likely” was introduction through an intermediary host. One of the specific recommendations in the report calls for "surveys for SARSr-CoVs in farmed wildlife or livestock that have potential to be infected, including species bred for food such as ferret-badgers and civets, and those bred for fur such as mink and raccoon dogs in farms in China, in South-East Asia, and in other regions.”

The report further noted "SARS-CoV-2 adapts relatively rapidly in susceptible animals (such as mink). The increasing number of animals shown to be susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 includes animals that are farmed in sufficient densities to allow potential for enzootic circulation.”  

China is home to the largest fur producing industry in the world, rearing 14 million foxes, 13.5 million raccoon dogs and 11.6 million mink in 2019. Other countries with fur farms include Denmark, Poland, the Netherlands and the United States.

Dr Peter Li, China policy expert at Humane Society International, said: "The WHO report provides a stark and sobering warning about the devastating public health risks of exploiting wild animals in unsanitary, overcrowded and inhumane factory farm systems be that bamboo rats and badgers for human consumption, pangolins for traditional medicine, or raccoon dogs and mink for fur fashion. Cramming millions of animals together in these abusive industries creates a perfect petri dish for pandemics, and unless we ban farming for fur and the wildlife trade, we will continue to play Russian roulette with global public safety.”

The WHO report and leaders' letter comes just two weeks after the release by Humane Society International of new footage from inside 13 fur farms in China showing animals crowded in very close proximity with breaches of many of China's regulations, including on epidemic control. Despite HSI's investigation taking place during the global pandemic, none of the fur farms followed basic biosecurity measures, with disease control regulations routinely ignored such as disinfection stations at entry and exit points. In light of outbreaks of COVID-19 on at least 422 mink fur farms in 11 different countries in Europe and North America since April 2020, and raccoon dogs and foxes also being capable of contracting coronaviruses, the lack of adherence to safety measures is extremely concerning.

Nicola Beynon, Head of Campaigns at Humane Society International/Australia, said: "The WHO report gives the world essential information to treat the cause behind COVID-19 as well as its symptoms. If countries fail to clamp down on wildlife farming and trade we will forever be gambling with public health and world economies.”

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In April 2020 Humane Society International published an urgent plea and science-based white paper calling for immediate action to ban the trade, transport and consumption of wildlife, particularly mammals and birds which are known to contract coronaviruses, in order to address the threat they pose to public health in addition to animal welfare and species conservation. 

Multiple infectious disease outbreaks have been tied to the wildlife trade including SARS in 2003 which is believed to have been passed to humans by civets sold for meat. An estimated 75% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic (spread from non-human animals to humans).

China introduced a ban on the sale of wild animals for food in February 2020, but wild animals used for other purposes such as traditional medicine and fur are notably excluded from the prohibition (and even reclassified as livestock) despite the fact that they also involve the farming of wild species in crowded, unhygienic and stressful conditions, providing ideal circumstances for the spread of zoonoses.

Facts:

  • Eleven countries across Europe and North America have now officially identified COVID-19 positive animals on mink farms: Denmark (290 farms), Netherlands (69 farms), Greece (23 farms), United States (16 farms), Sweden (13 farms), Spain (4 farms), Lithuania (2 farms), Canada (2 farms), Italy (2 farms), France (1 farm), Poland (1 farm).
  • An estimated 53 million mink are farmed for fur in 24 countries around the world, with the top three production countries in Europe in 2018: Denmark (17.6 million mink) and Poland (5 million mink) and the Netherlands (4.5 million mink). China farmed 11.6 million mink for their fur in 2019, a sharp decrease from 20.6 million mink in 2018.

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About HSI Australia

HSI concentrates on the preservation of endangered animals and ecosystems and works to ensure quality of life for all animals, both domestic and wild. HSI is the largest animal protection not-for-profit organisation in the world and has been established in Australia since 1994