Industrial livestock, not wet markets, might be origin of Covid-19 / 30 Mar 2020

“Let’s be clear: there is no solid evidence that the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which is the cause of the current Covid-19 disease pandemic, is an open seafood market in Wuhan that also trades in domestic and wild animals. All that we know is that several early cases of people diagnosed with Covid-19 either worked at this market or shopped there in the days preceding their diagnosis.

Many media outlets and pundits have seized on this information to claim that Chinese wet markets and the live trade in domestic and wild animals are to blame for the emergence of the disease1. And some are even calling for a ban on wet markets— which are vital to the livelihoods and food security of millions of small farmers, traders and consumers2. There is a growing body of evidence that points to a different origin story for Covid-19.

We now know that none of the animals tested at the Wuhan seafood market tested positive and about a third of the initial set of reported cases in people in Wuhan from early December 2019 had no connection to the seafood market, including the first reported case 3 4. And we also now know, thanks to the leak of an official Chinese report to the South China Morning Post that the actual first known case of Covid-19 in Hubei was detected in mid-November, weeks before the cluster of cases connected to the Wuhan seafood market were reported5.

Last week, scientists at the Scripps Research Institute published a genomic sequencing analysis of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the journal Nature that raises more doubts about the possibility of SARS-CoV-2 having originated at the Wuhan seafood market6. The scientists conclude that SARS-CoV-2 evolved from natural selection and not genetic engineering in a lab, and they say that this natural selection occurred through two possible scenarios. One is that it evolved into its highly pathogenic form within humans.

In this case, a less pathogenic form of the virus would have jumped from an animal to a human host and then would have evolved into its current form through an “extended period” of “undetected human-to-human transmission”. Under this scenario, there is no reason to believe that the Wuhan seafood market had anything to do with the evolution of the disease, even if it is quite possible that an infected person at the market could have transmitted it to others.

The second scenario fits with previous coronavirus outbreaks, in which humans contracted deadly coronaviruses after direct exposure to civets, in the case of SARS, and to camels, in the case of MERS. In this scenario, SARS-CoV-2 would have evolved to its present form in an animal host before transfer to humans. Like many other scientists, the Scripps researchers think that it is most likely that the initial transmission would have occurred from bats to an intermediate animal host, where the virus then evolved to its current form. The Scripps7 researchers go on to say that the particular genetics of SARS-CoV-2 indicate that “an animal host would probably have to have a high population density (to allow natural selection to proceed efficiently) and an ACE2-encoding gene that is similar to the human ortholog,” which is what the SARS-CoV-2 virus binds to in humans.

So which animals fit this criteria? Another recently published study identifies the most likely intermediate animal hosts for SARS-CoV-2, based on their presence in Wuhan and their having a human-like ACE2 that enables the binding of SARS-CoV-2. These are the animals the study identified: civets, pigs, pangolins, cats, cows, buffalos, goats, sheep and pigeons8. Many of the animals on this list are industrially farmed in China, even wild animals like civets and pangolins are intensively farmed for their use in Chinese medicines. Suspicions that wild animal farms may have been behind the Covid-19 outbreak have already led the Chinese government to shut down 20,000 wild animal farms across the country9.

But hardly any attention has been given to some other animals on this list, which more clearly meet the “high population density” criteria. Pigs would be one obvious candidate from this list, for several reasons. For one, pigs and humans have very similar immune systems, making it easy for viruses to cross between the two species, as happened with the Nipah virus outbreak in Malaysia in 199810. Indeed, just three years before the Covid-19 outbreak began, tens of thousands of pigs in four factory farms in Qingyuan county in Guangdong, less than 100 km from the site where the SARS outbreak originated in 2003, died from an outbreak of a new, lethal coronavirus strain (SADS) that turned out to be 98 percent identical to a coronavirus found in horseshoe bats in a nearby cave11. Luckily transmission to humans did not occur, but subsequent laboratory tests demonstrated that such transmission could have been possible12.

Hubei Province, where Wuhan is located, is one of the top five largest producers of pigs in China. Over the past decade, small pig farms in the province have been replaced by large factory farms and medium-sized contract operations, where hundreds or thousands of genetically-uniform pigs are confined in high density barns. These industrial farms are the ideal breeding grounds for the evolution of new pathogens13. Hubei’s factory pig farms are still reeling from a massive outbreak of African swine fever that struck the province and other parts of China just over a year ago, wiping out up to half of the national herd14. In these conditions, it is entirely possible that an outbreak of a new coronavirus among pigs in the province could go unnoticed.

GRAIN and other organisations and scientists have been raising the alarm for over a decade now about how the industrialisation and corporate consolidation of meat production has generated increased risks for the emergence of global pandemics such as Covid-1915. But this reality has been completely ignored by governments and the big meat companies they are beholden to. As noted by evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace16, “Anyone who aims to understand why viruses are becoming more dangerous must investigate the industrial model of agriculture and, more specifically, livestock production. At present, few governments, and few scientists, are prepared to do so.” With the growing carnage from Covid-19, a radical change in direction is more urgent than ever.”

1. Therese Shaheen, “The Chinese Wild-Animal Industry and Wet Markets Must Go”, National Review, 19 March : https://www.nationalreview.com/2020/03/the-chinese-wild-animal-industry-and-wet-markets-must-go/
2. “Fresh markets are not to blame for the new corona virus outbreak”, GRAIN, 27 February : https://grain.org/e/6413
3. Carolyn Kormann, “From Bats to Human Lungs, the Evolution of a Coronavirus”, The New Yorker, 27 March : https://www.newyorker.com/science/elements/from-bats-to-human-lungs-the-evolution-of-a-coronavirus

4. Jon Cohen,”Wuhan seafood market may not be source of novel virus spreading globally”, Science Magazine, 26 January : https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/01/wuhan-seafood-market-may-not-be-source-novel-virus-spreading-globally
5. Jeanna Bryner, “1st known case of coronavirus traced back to November in China”, Live Science, 14 March : https://www.livescience.com/first-case-coronavirus-found.html
6. Kristian G. Andersen, Andrew Rambaut, W. Ian Lipkin, Edward C. Holmes & Robert F. Garry, “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2”, Nature Medicine, 17 March : https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-020-0820-9
7. The Scripps Lab website is here : https://andersen-lab.com/

8. Ye Qiu,Yuan-Bo Zhao, Qiong Wang, Jin-YanLi, Zhi-Jian Zhou, Ce-Heng Liao, Xing-YiG, “Predicting the angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) utilizing capability as the receptor of SARS-CoV-2”, Science Direct, 19 March : https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1286457920300496
9. “Coronavirus closures reveal vast scale of China’s secretive wildlife farm industry”, The Guardian, 25 February : https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/feb/25/coronavirus-closures-reveal-vast-scale-of-chinas-secretive-wildlife-farm-industry
10. Stephen P. Luby, Emily S. Gurley, and M. Jahangir Hossain, “Transmission of human infection with Nipah virus”, National Center for Biotechnology Information, 2 November 2009 : https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK114486/

11. “How China’s “Bat Woman” Hunted Down Viruses from SARS to the New Coronavirus”, Scientific American, 11 March : https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-chinas-bat-woman-hunted-down-viruses-from-sars-to-the-new-coronavirus1/
12. Yong-Le Yang, Pan Qin, Bin Wang, Yan Liu, Guo-Han Xu, Lei Peng, Jiyong Zhou, Shu Jeffrey Zhu, Yao-Wei Huang, “Broad Cross-Species Infection of Cultured Cells by Bat HKU2-Related Swine Acute Diarrhea Syndrome Coronavirus and Identification of Its Replication in Murine Dendritic Cells In Vivo Highlight Its Potential for Diverse Interspecies Transmission” Journal of Virology – American Society for Microbiology, 26 November 2019 : https://doi.org/10.1128/jvi.01448-19


13. “Building a factory farmed future, one pandemic at a time”, GRAIN, 3 March : https://www.grain.org/en/article/6418-building-a-factory-farmed-future-one-pandemic-at-a-time
14. “Building a factory farmed future, one pandemic at a time”, GRAIN, 3 March : https://www.grain.org/en/article/6418-building-a-factory-farmed-future-one-pandemic-at-a-time
15. “Viral times – The politics of emerging global animal diseases”, GRAIN, 20 January 2008 : https://grain.org/e/614
16. “Capitalist agriculture and Covid-19: A deadly combination”, Climate and Capitalism, 11 March : https://climateandcapitalism.com/2020/03/11/capitalist-agriculture-and-covid-19-a-deadly-combination/

by Michael Standaert  /   23 Jan 2020

“Each evening, under cover of darkness, hundreds of live pigs from farms across China are trucked through the rusting gates of a cluster of mildew-stained quarantine and inspection buildings in the Qingshuihe logistics zone in Shenzhen. Overnight they are checked for illness, primarily the African swine fever (ASF) that is expected to kill off a quarter of the world’s pigs, and reloaded on to ventilated trucks with dual mainland China and Hong Kong licence plates. Before sunrise the caravan makes its way five-and-a-half miles south to the border at Man Kam To, a small customs and immigration checkpoint, where the pigs go through further visual health checks before crossing into Hong Kong. They are bound for Sheung Shui slaughterhouse, the largest of three abattoirs in the territory. Once there they will be checked again before being dispatched in less than 24 hours under new rules meant to prevent the spread of ASF. It’s a lot of effort to get fresh meat from the 1,400 pigs that cross the border each day.

“Sheung Shui slaughterhouse is the largest of three abattoirs in the territory.”

For various reasons, the Chinese prefer freshly slaughtered pig, chicken and beef over chilled or frozen meat that has been slaughtered before being shipped. That desire is at the heart of why diseases such as avian flu in poultry and ASF have been so difficult to eradicate, with huge movements of live animals from all over the country – from farm to slaughterhouse to market – on a daily basis making controlling the spread of disease incredibly difficult. A recent coronavirus outbreak in China has been linked to a wet market in Wuhan, eastern China.

“The misuses and overuse of antimicrobials in livestock production is fueling the spread of antimicrobial resistance, which helps bacteria and pathogens resist antibiotic treatment.”

Like other respiratory illnesses, the disease was initially transmitted from animal to human, but is now being passed human to human. But despite awareness of the issues, the markets are a huge part of Chinese life. On a busy morning at a so-called “wet market” in the Shajing area, the oldest inhabited and very Cantonese part of Shenzhen, hundreds of shoppers arrive soon after daybreak. Slabs of pork hang from the stalls and various cuts are piled on the counters amid lights with a reddish glare and the occasional buzzing of flies.

Just a few minutes away at the nearby Walmart, where there are also options for fresh, chilled and frozen meat, the customer flow at this time of day is only a trickle compared to the wet market. It has your average western supermarket vibe – white daylight lighting, sterile and clean. Staff at the meat counter in Walmart and at the stalls in the wet market both say the meat comes in from the same slaughterhouse around 2am. So why the huge difference in foot traffic? Molly Maj, a corporate communications representative for Walmart, says “the average customer in China still prefers fresh meat” over other options. One reason for the demand for wet markets is that widespread refrigeration only came to China in recent years. While most urban homes now have refrigerators, many in rural areas and low income urban renters still do not own one, or only a mini-fridge if they do.

“Butchers’ shop at the Bowrington Road food market in Hong Kong.”

The habit of buying perishable food for daily use is still prevalent in many consumers, particularly older shoppers who grew up without refrigerators. They say they can tell the quality of fresh meat by its smell, colour and how it feels to the touch. “When I’m talking with my students I say: ‘The term warm meat, fresh meat, sounds disgusting to me, I grew up [in Germany] with chilled meat, that’s all I know,” Dirk Pfeiffer, a professor of veterinary medicine at City University in Hong Kong and an expert on diseases related to animal husbandry, says. “So I ask them why and they come up with all sorts of vague things like the soup tastes better or that it is a trust issue, knowing it is a live animal at the other end and not some diseased animal,” he says. “It’s all very subjective.”

Wet markets are central to the perception that fresh meat is better, says Pfeiffer. They evoke nostalgia among shoppers, many of whom come from rural areas where all they knew were wet markets and no refrigeration. Where a wet market feels familiar a supermarket can seem alien and out of place. “I actually believe that it is an important thing for the older generation to go to the wet market and chat,” says Pfeiffer. However, the way the animal trade operates in China is “an utter disaster”, for animal disease and welfare, he adds. A year ago, before rising concerns about the spread of ASF, nearly 4,000 pigs crossed daily with less scrutiny.

Pigs were held in dismal conditions for as long as five days before being slaughtered on the Hong Kong side, greatly enhancing the possibility of disease transmission, says Pfeiffer. The recent shortages due to the ASF outbreak have doubled and tripled prices for fresh pork at wet markets across Hong Kong. Farms in Hong Kong itself can usually supply about 300 pigs a day. Land use and environmental restrictions prevent any increase in production. The result is further worries about Hong Kong’s reliance on mainland China beyond its water and energy dependence. “Many years ago, we had imports from all over Asia of live animals, but eventually the entire supply was monopolised by mainland China,” said Helena Wong, a member of Hong Kong’s legislative council panel on food safety and environmental hygiene. “They killed all their competitors and monopolised the supply of live pig and chicken.”

“Pigs about to be buried alive after an outbreak of ASF in Guangxi in 2019.”

More than 6,000 pigs at the Sheung Shui slaughterhouse were culled in May 2019 after ASF was found among animals brought in from China. Hong Kong’s legislative council is now trying to figure out how much it owes traders and farmers in compensation. Massive culls of poultry due to avian flu in imported mainland chickens in the last decade also led to large compensation bills and, eventually, to ending live chicken imports in early 2016. “We as taxpayers have to give that money,” said Wong. “So now we are in a big crisis because in the past few years we have experienced avian flu and now African swine fever.”

Disease outbreaks have raised wider questions about the sustainability of Chinese consumers’ appetite – both on the mainland and in Hong Kong – for what is often called “warm” meat. For Deborah Cao, a professor at Griffith University in Australia and an expert on animal protection in China, a deeper issue driving the live animal trade is a cultural disconnect about animal welfare. “The main problem is the indifference or perception of people who simply regard animals as food, tools, or as things that people can do anything they want to,” she said. “In particular, there is no perception of farm animals as having feelings, or being capable of feeling pain or suffering.”

Hong Kong may find it difficult to switch to a different model. There is almost no chance of farm expansion to support larger scale production within Hong Kong and, although the government is looking at possibilities of live imports from other Asian countries, the ports do not have adequate facilities to cope with large numbers. “To a large extent, if we insist on fresh food, we have to rely on China,” said Wong. “If we can change and make certain concessions, Hong Kong has always been an open market for importing food items from many parts of the world. It is only for the provision of live animals that we are monopolised by the mainland farms.”

“Freshly-slaughtered meat is preferred over meat that has been shipped.”

Coronavirus closures reveal vast scale of China’s secretive wildlife farm industry
by Michael Standaert in Shenzhen  /  24 Feb 2020

“Nearly 20,000 wildlife farms raising species including peacocks, civet cats, porcupines, ostriches, wild geese and boar have been shut down across China in the wake of the coronavirus, in a move that has exposed the hitherto unknown size of the industry. Until a few weeks ago wildlife farming was still being promoted by government agencies as an easy way for rural Chinese people to get rich. But the Covid-19 outbreak, which has now led to 2,666 deaths and over 77,700 known infections, is thought to have originated in wildlife sold at a market in Wuhan in early December, prompting a massive rethink by authorities on how to manage the trade. China issued a temporary ban on wildlife trade to curb the spread of the virus at the end of January and began a widespread crackdown on breeding facilities in early February.

The country’s top legislative officials are now rushing to amend the country’s wildlife protection law and possibly restructure regulations on the use of wildlife for food and traditional Chinese medicine. The current version of the law is seen as problematic by wildlife conservation groups because it focuses on utilisation of wildlife rather than its protection. “The coronavirus epidemic is swiftly pushing China to reevaluate its relationship with wildlife,” Steve Blake, chief representative of WildAid in Beijing, told the Guardian. “There is a high level of risk from this scale of breeding operations both to human health and to the impacts on populations of these animals in the wild.” The National People’s Congress released new measures on Monday restricting wildlife trade, banning consumption of bushmeat and sales of wildlife for meat consumption at wet markets between now and the time the Wildlife Protection Law can be amended and adopted. Untouched however, are breeding operations for traditional Chinese medicine, fur and leather, lucrative markets known to drive illegal poaching of animals including tigers and pangolins.

“Zhangjiakou city has more than 1,500 firms processing furs from foxes and racoons.”

For the past few years China’s leadership has pushed the idea that “wildlife domestication” should be a key part of rural development, eco-tourism and poverty alleviation. A 2017 report by the Chinese Academy of Engineering on the development of the wildlife farming industry valued the wildlife-farming industry those operations at 520bn yuan, or £57bn. Just weeks before the outbreak, China’s State Forestry and Grassland Administration (SFGA) was still actively encouraging citizens to get into farming wildlife such as civet cats – a species pinpointed as a carrier of Sars, a disease similar to Covid-19. The SFGA regulates both farming and trade in terrestrial wildlife, and quotas of wildlife products – such as pangolin scales – allowed to be used by the Chinese medicine industry.

“Civet cats are thought to be potential carriers of Sars”

“Why are civet cats still encouraged to [be eaten] after the Sars outbreak in 2003? It’s because the hunters, operators, practitioners need that. How can they achieve that? They urged the government to support them under the pretext of economic development,” Jinfeng Zhou, secretary-general of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF), told the Guardian. On state TV the popular series Secrets of Getting Rich, which has aired since 2001, often touts these kinds of breeding operations – bamboo rats, snakes, toads, porcupines and squirrels have all had starring roles. But little was known about the scale of the wildlife farm industry before the coronavirus outbreak, with licensing mainly regulated by provincial and local-level forestry bureaus that do not divulge full information about the breeding operations under their watch.

“Breeding rats has been seen as central to alleviating poverty in rural areas.”

A report from state-run Xinhua news agency on 17 February revealed that from 2005–2013 the forestry administration only issued 3,725 breeding and operation licenses at the national level. But since the outbreak at least 19,000 farms have been shut down around the country, including about 4,600 in Jilin province, a major centre for traditional Chinese medicine. About 3,900 wildlife-farming operations were shuttered in Hunan province, 2,900 in Sichuan, 2,300 in Yunnan, 2,000 in Liaoning, and 1,000 in Shaanxi. There is little detail available about the animals farmed across China, but local press reports mention civet cats, bamboo rats, ostriches, wild boar, sika deer, foxes, ostriches, blue peacocks, turkeys, quails, guinea fowl, wild geese, mallard ducks, red-billed geese, pigeons, and ring-necked pheasants. Neither do reports offer much detail about the shutdowns and what is happening to the animals, although Blake said he does not think animals are being culled, due to issues over compensation.

“Peacock breeders use plastic bags to wrap up the birds to stop feathers falling off”

Chen Hong, a peacock farmer in Liuyang, Hunan, said she is concerned about her losses and whether she will get compensation after her operations were suspended on 24 January. “We now aren’t allowed to sell the animals, transport them, or let anyone near them, and we have to sanitise the facility once every day,” Chen said. “Usually this time of year would see our farm bustling with clients and visitors. We haven’t received notice on what to do yet, and the peacocks are still here, and we probably won’t know what to do with [them] until after the outbreak is contained. “We’re very worried about the farm’s future,” she added. “The shutdown has resulted in a loss of 400,000–500,000 yuan (£44,000–55,000) in sales, and if they decide to put an outright ban on raising peacocks, we’ll lose even more, at least a million yuan(£110,000).” On a visit to Shaoguan, Guangdong province, last year, the Guardian and staff from CBCGDF saw a caged facility previously used for attempted breeding of the notoriously hard-to-breed pangolin.

While there were no longer pangolin at the site, several locals near the facility confirmed the species had been raised there, along with monkeys and other wildlife. Besides being used for Chinese medicine, much of the meat from the wildlife trade is sold through online platforms or to “wet markets” like the one where the Covid-19 outbreak is thought to have started in Wuhan. “All animals or their body parts for human consumption are supposed to go through food and health checks, but I don’t think the sellers ever bothered,” said Deborah Cao, a professor at Griffith University in Australia and an expert on animal protection in China. “Most of them [have been] sold without such health checks.”

“After the livestock revolution: Post-Mao, farming in China rapidly changed.”

There have been calls for a deep regulatory overhaul to remove the conflicting duties of the forestry administration, and for a shift in government mindset away from promoting the utilisation of wildlife and towards its protection. “The ‘referee-player’ combination needs to be addressed and is the toughest [challenge],” Li Shuo, a senior campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia told the Guardian. “This goes back to the institutional identity [of the SFGA] which was established to oversee timber production. Protection was an afterthought.”

Proposals include fully banning trade in wildlife that is protected or endangered within and outside of China, plus bans on raising and selling meat from known carriers of diseases that can impact humans such as civets, bats and rodents. There are concerns that in trying to prevent outbreaks authorities may go too far in the culling of wild animals that can carry disease. “Some law professors have suggested ‘ecological killing’ of disease-transmitting wild animals, such as pangolins, hedgehogs, bats, snakes, and some insects,” Zhou said. “We believe lawmakers need to learn [more about] biodiversity before advising on the revisions to the law, or they’ll bring disaster.”