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Animal trafficking could produce another pandemic, a USF researcher warns

Researchers believe the coronavirus was transferred from an animal to a human at a wet market like the one shown here in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. AP Photo/Mark Baker
Researchers believe the coronavirus was transferred from an animal to a human at a wet market like the one shown here in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. AP Photo/Mark Baker

The origins of the coronavirus are still not clear, but a University of South Florida professor says the evidence -- and history -- would suggest it came from an animal.

Sean Doody is a biologist who tracks the spread of viruses and diseases in wildlife.

Health News Florida's Leda Alvim spoke with Doody about the role animal trafficking plays in the transmission of viruses and how we might prevent future pandemics.

He starts by talking about why he believes COVID-19 came from an animal.

The science is still not clear on the origins of the coronavirus. Why do you believe humans caught it from animals? 

We can't ever be completely sure, but available evidence points to a zoonotic origin, as we call it, of COVID-19 from animals to humans. And there have been seven coronaviruses that have done this since the 1960s. And so there are precedents out there. We just can't always get the smoking gun to where we're 100% sure, so we rely on the evidence that we have. So we think that COVID-19 originated in this wet market in Wuhan, China -- in humans, that is. The wet market was stacked with all sorts of live and freshly dead wildlife, much of it illegally trafficked and this is how those types of diseases jump from animal species to animal species and from animals to humans.

So what role does animal trafficking play in the transmission of viruses like the coronavirus?

The DNA of the coronavirus in humans is most similar to the DNA in coronaviruses in pangolins, the scaly anteater. They are found in Asia and Africa, so once the Asian pangolins became hard to find, they started trafficking from Africa. So a pangolin gets caught in Africa, and has to find its way with hundreds of others potentially, all the way to southeast Asia where they're being used for traditional medicine. This is the reason that they're trafficked. So it's not just the wet markets, it could be the cages on the way there. And so we need to do all we can to reduce -- if we can't stop -- wildlife trafficking even before the wet markets, so that we reduce the chances that we have another pandemic in our lifetime. There have been seven of these since the 1960s so we're going to see more. The idea is, let's hope that A, there are very few of them, and B, they're not bad ones. So we need to reduce how many we get by stopping these atypical associations between animals and other animals and humans.

Based on what we know about animal trafficking and what resulted from it with a pandemic, do you believe that we are still in danger of another virus spreading the same way the coronavirus did?

I think so. And as the evidence comes pouring in and spotlights get shined on this, I think we're going to see that there's no reason why we couldn't have a completely different coronavirus or some other pathogens five years from now. I hate to be a doomsday person here, but our focus so far, and rightly so, has been trying to get through this pandemic, right? Over 5 million dead tens of millions of people hospitalized, we've got increases in depression, suicide rates, we've got economic problems. So there's all these things that we're trying to fix, and hopefully, as we get that fixed, we can then shine the spotlight back on the ultimate cause because this could all happen again. And if we don't do something about the ultimate cause, then we really are just going to be stuck going through this again. And it could be five years from now 20 or 50 before we get another big pandemic like this, and perhaps we'll be better able to handle one since we've been through this one.

What do you think can be done to solve the problem?

Number one, the market. Number two, the actual trafficking, and then raising awareness is the big one that is overarching. Because if we can raise awareness, get the support of the public, we'll get the support of politicians and legislation, then we can put the resources into the problem.

Copyright 2021 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7. To see more, visit WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7.

Leda Alvim
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