Photo Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media. Pangolin tails for sale in Johannesburg, South Africa.
With a year of hindsight, we all know more about the causes of the COVID-19 pandemic and zoonotic diseases in general. The nodes of human-animal connection where coronaviruses jump species are many, including dogs, cats, birds, chickens, pigs and rodents. But in the research that has arisen this year, the primary touchpoint is between humans and wild animals.
Finding the origin of SARS-CoV-2 is crucial for fighting future zoonotic epidemics, creating drugs for treatments, and developing vaccines. As noted by Jeremy Rossman in an April 2021 piece in ScienceFocus, “There are good reasons to look for the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, although they may not directly affect our current situation or our ability to control the pandemic. If we’re able to discover the origins of the virus we may learn if there’s an unknown reservoir of the virus in some wild animal population that may pose risks of future SARS-CoV-2 outbreaks.”
Scientists now understand that this pandemic originated in bats, although here speculation diverges. It is possible that this coronavirus passed directly from horseshoe bats to humans, or that it passed through an intermediary host where it further evolved before jumping to humans. That intermediary host is thought to be the pangolin. According to an August, 2020 article in The New Yorker, in 2019 necropsies on pangolins with respiratory distress who were seized by customs police showed evidence of two viruses: One harmless to humans and one a coronavirus. Later, as researchers scrambled to find the source of the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese researchers found that although the match overall was not that close, pangolin lung tissue did contain some gene segments that were 99% similar to parts of the SARS-CoV-2 that caused this pandemic. Knowing this led to suppositions that that viral genes were shuffled between bat and pangolin before reaching humans.
All eight species of pangolin are being pushed toward extinction due to human consumption of their bodies and trafficking of their skins and scales. Between 1975 and 2000—when their export was deemed illegal—approximately 776,000 pangolins became merchandise that was traded legally on the international market. Up to that point, the pangolin scales were primarily used in traditional Chinese medicines (that are not supported by science), while most of the skins went to North America, to be manufactured into fashion accessories like belts, handbags and boots. As the Asian populations were depleted, pangolins from Africa that had been regionally consumed as a bush-meat market commodity supplied an international trade for the skins, scales and bodies of these docile animals. By 2016 the situation was so dire that all international trade of wild-caught pangolins and their parts was declared illegal. That has not stopped the lucrative trade.
The meek pangolin certainly is not the only species imperiled by the wildlife trade even in protected areas, according to a recent online article in Science. Wildlife trafficking impacts tens of millions of individual animals, generates between $5 and $20 billion per year, and supports 150 million human families’ who eat or sell those animals livelihoods. A recent review study of 32 papers found that in unprotected areas populations, trafficked species populations declined by 65%, with a less, but still significant decline of 39% in areas that were protected.
It is unclear from which animal of these animals the next pandemic might crossover to humans. (For instance, the 2012 outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), also a coronavirus, had established itself in camels before spilling over to humans with the help of bats.) But it is safe to say that the wildlife trade offers significant chances for this type of spillover to happen by creating more instances of wild animal-human interaction at a number of levels.
As noted in an NPR piece, “We live in a kind of coronavirus world,” says virologist Edward Holmes at the University of Sydney. According to Holmes, “We’re only just starting to scratch the surface. The virusphere of coronaviruses is just immense.” One research study from 2018 by the EcoHealth Alliance, found 3% of people tested in southern Chinese villages had been infected with an unknown coronavirus within the past few years. His research leads Holmes to caution, “I think we need to face reality here. Coronavirus pandemics are not a once in a hundred year event. The next one could come at any time. It could come in 50 years or in 10 years. Or it could be next year.”
Both the search for the origins of this zoonotic pandemic and preventing the next one has implications not only for creating a safer world for humans, but also for the lives and livelihoods of the wild animals trafficked for human purposes. The general public now has a much greater awareness that human-animal connections fostered this pandemic, a global disaster that has taken more than a year of our collective effort to begin to overcome. With that knowledge comes an obligation to do what we can not only to prevent the next pandemic, but also to find solutions that reduce and ultimately stop the destruction of wildlife species with whom we share this—our shared and only—planet.
- The Animals & Society Institute is a member of the Endangered Species Coalition.
- Riebel, L (2012). Endangered Species: Saving Them and Ourselves. Animal and Society Institute. Ann Arbor, MI:
- The Global Research Network’s Animals & Biodiversity site.
- The EcoHealth Alliance
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