The spread of the COVID-19 virus has hampered economic activity, limited international travel, cross border trade, and left businesses at the threat of bankruptcy. Another intentionally overlooked sector of international trade is illegally trafficking wildlife.

China had announced in February, a permanent ban on wildlife trade and consumption, drafting legislation to end “the pernicious habit of eating wildlife” that international conservationists greeted as a major step, but one with troublesome loopholes. The ban largely covered the illegal sale of animals on online platforms, markets, and restaurants. But according to an analysis by the Wildlife Conservation Society, the decision does not ban trade for medicine, fur or research. This creates a potential loophole for traffickers who may exploit the non-food exemptions to trade or sell live wildlife.

Coronavirus attack a variety of birds and mammals. The new virus seems to have leapt from wildlife to humans in Wuhan, China, where live animals were slaughtered and sold as food. That is a familiar story. The SARS epidemic, also caused by coronavirus began in China with the consumption of a cat-like animal called the Palm Civet. The MERS epidemic began with a coronavirus transmitted to humans from camels in the Middle East. Though wildlife markets aren’t the sole cause of such new viruses, high rates of deforestation along with biodiversity loss increases the risk of these infections by bringing people and livestock into contact with wildlife, and by altering the environment to favour transmissions of certain diseases, such as malaria and dengue. Hot spots such as China and Southeast Asia among others are prime areas for emerging zoonotic diseases and pathogens that naturally occur in wildlife and find their way to domestic animals and humans through mutation or new contact.

A recent study conducted by the Wildlife Conservation Society over a span of eight years in Vietnam on coronavirus highlight the importance of this viral family as a zoonotic public health threat. Field rats are highly popular animals for consumption in Vietnam, and the percentage of control group mice that tested positive for at least one of six different coronaviruses jumped significantly as it moved along the supply chain till the end consumer. It increased from 20 per cent of wild-caught rats sold by traders to slightly more than 30 perc ent at large markets, the next step in the supply chain, to 55 per cent of rats sold in restaurants that tested positive.

In other words, the odds were even that the gourmet cooked field rat on the plate was infected with some kind of coronavirus and the human consumer is at greater risk of exposure and spill over.

The report suggests that the mixing of excreta and close confinement of stressed live animals provides opportunities for intra-species and inter-species transmission and potential recombination of coronaviruses. The mixing of multiple coronaviruses, and their amplification along the wildlife supply chain into restaurants, suggests a high risk for end consumers and likely supports the mechanisms of zoonotic spill over to people.

With the onset of the novel coronavirus, illegal movement of live animals has been restricted in most countries, but it has resulted in the stockpiling of these animals in far more terrible conditions. The Wildlife Justice Commission suggested that present limits on international travel and cross border trade will provide opportunities to law enforcement on disrupting and shutting down criminal trade networks. Illegal operations always adapt in response to such disruptions and traffickers are actively seeking new ways to thrive in such restricted conditions. Strict security and closed off borders have left traders offering discounts on their illegal wildlife goods, while others have temporarily stopped operation. Retailers in Southeast Asian countries also fear that the lack of customers will put them out of business.

To minimise public health risks the world over, precautionary measures that restrict international trade, killing, commercial breeding, transport, buying, storage, and consuming of wild animals need to be improved upon. The SAR-Coronavirus family has already shown to have devastating effects on global health and remedial measures must be taken to avoid any future health crises.

With the spread of yet another Coronavirus, experts see a repeating public health lesson: If the world wants to avoid epidemics that begin in animals, halting the international wildlife trade is one logical measure.

—The writer is a Lahore based freelance contributor on current global affairs and is a graduate from NUST.