Coronavirus Shows Why We Can't Take Animals For Granted

Richard Bowen

Key point: Human health is inextricably tied to the health of animals and the environment.

Nobody yet knows for sure the definitive origins of the newly recognized coronavirus now known as 2019-nCoV that’s currently spreading across the globe as a human respiratory pathogen. Early reports indicate that the source of the virus was the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, China, where an eclectic mix of animals including rodents, rabbits, bats and other wild animals and seafood are all on display for consumption and in contact with human shoppers.

Over the past two decades, the world has seen the emergence of multiple pandemic threats, including bird flu (H5N1 avian influenza), SARS, Ebola, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, chikungunya, Zika and now the new coronavirus from Wuhan. The viruses that cause these diseases, and indeed roughly two-thirds of all recent emergent viruses, originate in animals before they jump to humans.

Each of these events underscores that multiple parts of an ecosystem are at play during an outbreak. For instance, wild bats and rodents harbor numerous viruses that have the potential to infect humans and animals. When these wild animals are extracted from their natural habitat and come into close contact with people, very rare transmission events become much more likely.

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