At the same time, our growing destruction and encroachment into natural areas and contact with wildlife has increased our risk of exposure to zoonotic diseases. It is estimated that 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) are caused by animal to human transmission (zoonosis), with wildlife increasingly being the vector. The scientific community has largely recognized three means of zoonotic disease spillover from animals to humans: (1) deforestation and habitat destruction; (2) wildlife trade and consumption; and (3) farmed animals. Our destruction and fragmentation of forests and rapid land use change are increasingly bringing people into contact with animals harboring disease. Consumption of wildlife as bushmeat, farmed, or through illegal trade and markets, also increases our exposure to EIDs. Most recent pandemics have been connected to zoonotic transmission, including Ebola, SARS, and COVID-19—often originating in bats and spilling over to humans through an intermediary, with the latter two originating in China and likely transmitted through the wildlife trade. Likewise, livestock represent a critical reservoir for emergent diseases, such as H5N1 influenza (bird flu) and H1N1 influenza (swine flu).
In response, several nations, including China, have begun the process to reform their wildlife laws to reduce the risk of future pandemics and save wild species from extinction. Even before the advent of COVID-19, China’s wildlife laws underwent significant changes as recently as 2016. These revisions to China’s Wildlife Protection Law (WPL) mandated confiscation of illegal wildlife products, enhanced protections for wildlife habitat, and provided for significantly harsher fines for the illegal hunting, breeding, trade, use, transport, and food production of endangered wildlife. Nonetheless, the law permitted captive breeding of numerous wildlife species (e.g., bears, tigers), and effectively promoted the consumption of many wildlife species as food or their use in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Critics have maintained that such uses of wildlife led to unhygienic health practices creating opportunities for zoonosis, abuse of captive wildlife, and cover for the illegal wildlife trade under legally sanctioned activity. Such laws enabled continued sale of wildlife at “wet markets”––markets selling fresh meat, fish, produce, but also exotic wildlife species. These markets host unsanitary conditions, where a messy mix of bodily fluids and the presence of multiple live and dead animal species in close proximity create a fertile ground for viral transmission from animal to animal or animal to humans.
In January 2020, following the emergence of COVID-19 and its suspected link to wildlife or wildlife markets, the Chinese government announced a temporary ban on wildlife trade throughout the country. While many wet markets were initially shut down, they were later allowed to reopen, subject to a pending ban on the sale of wildlife as food.