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A Better Way to Stop Coronaviruses

The latest outbreak has prompted calls to ban wild meat, but that won't address a deeper social problem.

A "wet market" in Macao (Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

It’s not known yet how, exactly, the current coronavirus outbreak got started. The viral pneumonia, called 2019-nCoV for now, belongs to the virus family that also gave birth to SARS and MERS. As with the SARS outbreak in 2002–03, it’s likely this new coronavirus originated in bats, with an intermediary animal that transmitted the altered virus to humans—an event called a “spillover.” As a result, one focus has been on the wildlife and food market in Wuhan, in central China, which Gao Fu, director of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, blamed last week for the outbreak. The Wuhan market was closed down earlier this month after several vendors contracted the viral pneumonia. All markets and restaurants in China are strictly prohibited from trading and selling wild meat as long as the epidemic continues. Some, including conservationists, would like to see China go a step further by instituting a permanent global ban on wildlife sale and consumption.

There are a few problems with the intense focus on these so-called wet markets, featuring live and dead animals, farm-raised and wild. International scapegoating of Chinese eating habits, as Foreign Policy pointed out earlier this week, can often be tinged with racism. And it’s not certain yet that the spillover originated with wild meat slaughter or consumption. But even if it did, a ban on wild meat won’t stop the current epidemic, which is now passing from person to person. And if similar past epidemics are any indication, a long-term ban could do more harm than good.

In the 2013–16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, officials suspected the hunting and slaughter of wild animals were to blame for the initial spillover from animals to humans. Although research now suggests the spillover may have occurred when a two-year-old child played in a hollow tree that was home to bats harboring the virus, officials implemented a ban on hunting, selling, and consuming wild meat, even after it became clear the virus was spreading from person to person. Rather than ending the consumption of wild meat, the ban drove the wildlife trade deeper underground, where it was virtually impossible to regulate—making other spillover events much more difficult to detect.

The ban also eroded public trust in officials, which is crucial for containing epidemics like these. In Sierra Leone, researchers interviewed people who had eaten wild meat, also known as bush meat, for generations; they doubted the meat, rather than human-to-human contact, could be the cause of the epidemic. So when officials blamed wild meat, many West Africans stopped trusting what officials and outbreak responders were saying about Ebola. If they were wrong about the meat, they reasoned, what else were they wrong about?

Nor did the bans change habits. Even among those who believed the messages that Ebola could be transmitted by handling and eating tainted wild meat, many returned to eating it after the epidemic ended.

The reasons people eat wild meat are complex—from cultural norms and traditions to preferences for the taste. But food insecurity frequently plays an outsize role. In China, for instance, about 150 million people are malnourished, and wild meat can offer a source of protein. According to a 2018 study, 39 percent of households surveyed across Latin America, Asia, and Africa harvest wild meat, and poorer households tend to rely on it more.

In Zambia, in September 2011, scores of hippos died of anthrax, a bacteria occurring naturally in soil. Hundreds of humans soon contracted the disease as well. Researchers discovered many were sickened after harvesting and eating the dead hippos. Yet even after they fell ill and became aware of the risk of contracting anthrax from dead animals, 23 percent of those surveyed said they would eat meat from dead hippos again, simply because food was hard to come by.

“Sometimes it’s a risk they’re willing to take,” said Melissa Marx, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who helped lead the Zambia study and worked in Taiwan during the SARS epidemic. “Because otherwise, they’re starving.”

These cases offer important lessons for both health policy and conservation, researchers say. Conservationists, who have adopted culturally sensitive approaches elsewhere, for example in some anti-poaching initiatives, have generally supported blanket bans on wild meat during epidemics, sometimes even to the point of seeming opportunistic: In 2014, the magazine New Scientist even ran a piece with the headline, “Ebola’s silver lining: We can clamp down on bushmeat.”

But wild meat bans approach both the public health problem and the conservation problem backward. According to researchers studying the socioeconomics of wild meat consumption during the 2013–16 Ebola epidemic, it would be more effective to focus on improving jobs and access to quality food, which could significantly reduce reliance on wild meat. “Plant protein sources, such as beans and other pulses, are often overlooked even though they present many advantages: Their production is cheaper and much more environmentally friendly, they are healthier protein sources and have a long shelf life,” Isabel Ordaz-Németh, who helped lead that study, told me by email.

“In my opinion, a universal ban on bushmeat is too totalizing, and unfair on poor rural folks sharing landscapes with wildlife,” Simon Pooley, a visiting researcher at Birkbeck, University of London, wrote to me. If it’s clear that eating a specific animal species results in epidemics in humans, then a ban would be appropriate and could help conserve species as well, he added. “But the primary concern when it comes to a public health crisis, and people are dying, is human health.”

Conservationists should also keep in mind the troubled history of colonial interference from conservation efforts, he said. “I am in no way suggesting the world’s ever-growing human population has an inalienable right to consume all wild animals and natural resources they depend on,” Pooley said. “I am suggesting that linking particular public health crises to saving (all) wildlife is ethically dubious and likely to backfire.”

While broad and permanent bans might be counterproductive, researchers and officials alike generally agree on the need for greater oversight when it comes to wildlife sales. “It makes it easier to figure out when outbreaks are happening, consistently stopping them before it gets too big,” said Asia Murphy, a doctoral student at Penn State.

In 2003, China implemented a sales ban on 54 species of animal after the SARS epidemic, which may have originated in civets sold in a wet market in Guangdong province. Officials lifted the ban later that year, allowing licensed breeding farms to continue raising the animals as long as they underwent regular sanitation checks. Only farm-raised animals may legally be sold at markets, but a team of World Health Organization specialists said, in 2003, that more regulations—and enforcement—were needed. They recommended testing exotic animals for viruses before they were sold at market. In early 2004, SARS broke out again in Guangdong, and civets at a restaurant tested positive for the virus. Another ban was quickly enacted, and a second epidemic was averted. In 2006, the infectious disease researchers Nanshan Zhong, a revered figure leading the SARS response, and Guangqiao Zeng wrote that another SARS-type coronavirus could develop into an epidemic “if no action is taken to control wildlife markets.” By 2007, researchers were raising alarms once more about the sale and consumption of animals like civets.

Melissa Marx, the Zambia anthrax researcher at Johns Hopkins, saw examples of effective regulation while working at the New York City Health Department, which would often shut down live animal markets quickly if they were suspected of infecting people. “It is something that can be used, but it has to be done pretty quickly,” she said of rapid-response, temporary shutdowns. “And you can’t just assume that people are going to stop eating something they’re used to eating.” She also emphasized that these temporary bans were very specific—targeting, for instance, chickens with salmonella—and that banning all types of meat is too broad.

Instead of a ban on all wildlife that could drive the trade underground and result in a loss of trust in public officials, Marx recommends governments consider increasing and enforcing regulations around the legal trade of wild animals, while improving food security by providing seeds for agriculture or starter fish for aquaculture. Markets that go unregulated, as they largely seem to be in China, provide opportunities for diseases to spill over into many different species—including humans. But a long-term and wide-ranging commitment to regulation would require “substantial resources and oversight,” Marx said. “It would be a massive investment in a huge country like China.”

Then again, the emergency measures China has had to enact with this and other outbreaks involve significant costs as well. It’s not just the financial expense of building hospitals in a matter of days, or bringing in and retaining medical staff, or cutting off trade throughout the country and beyond. It’s also the grievous loss of life, widespread panic, and uncertainty surrounding epidemics—the effects of which linger long after the outbreak subsides.

It can be difficult to raise public support for costly preventative measures. But in an increasingly interconnected world, all countries could benefit from adopting a more precautionary approach to such crises, whether that means better wildlife trade regulation or implementing higher-quality, lower-cost universal health care, which plays a powerful role in catching illness early and thus fighting epidemics. Public health crises are expected to proliferate in the coming decades, thanks to population growth and climate change. Researchers already know some of the best practices for addressing them. The question is whether policymakers around the world will take their advice.