The new coronavirus, which has traversed the globe to infect more than 1 million people, began like so many pandemics and outbreaks before: inside an animal.
The virus’s original host was almost certainly a bat, scientists have said, as was the case with Ebola, SARS, MERS and lesser-known viruses such as Nipah and Marburg. HIV migrated to humans more than a century ago from a chimpanzee. Influenza A has jumped from wild birds to pigs to people. Rodents spread Lassa fever in West Africa.
But the problem is not the animals, according to scientists who study the zoonotic diseases that pass between animals and humans. It’s us.
Wild animals have always had viruses coursing through their bodies. But a global wildlife trade worth billions of dollars, agricultural intensification, deforestation and urbanization are bringing people closer to animals, giving their viruses more of what they need to infect us: opportunity. Most fail. Some succeed on small scales. Very few, like SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus, triumph, aided by a supremely interconnected human population that can transport a pathogen around the world on a jet in mere hours.
One might have titled this post necessary human changes, but sadly change is not necessary – it’s possible that people will imprudently continue as they have been, and inflict future pandemics on others. Change seems necessary only for those with a moral sense; the ignorant might continue with their destructive habits to the detriment of countless innocents across the globe.
It will not be enough to ban wet markets in exotic animals (note the distinction between wild & exotic and domesticated animals). A mere ban would not prevent some sellers from moving underground. (Prohibitionists often erroneously believe that if they ban a practice, it will disappear.) Instead, societies will have to choose, as a matter of widespread belief, against an easy connection to, and consumption of, exotic animals.