Whoever said that climate change and human activities that threaten the environment are not related to the coronavirus pandemic, is wrong, these two are very much so.
This is the story of a small animal that has a lot to do with the pandemic we live in today and it should not have a leading role on this story. Before we start, we must use the correct scientific vocabulary. The disease that causes the virus is called CoVid-19, but the virus itself is scientifically called SARS-CoV-2, also commonly known as coronavirus because it belongs to the family of orthocoronavirinae characterized by being a single-stranded positive RNA virus and one of its peculiar characteristics is the crown of tips (or glycoproteins that assist the virus on binding to the cell of a host living beings) observed around the outer surface of the virus.
After learning the correct vocabulary, we can continue with the story. We could say that everything is connected, that the planet works as a living system where absolutely everything is interconnected and that if something falls or something interrupts this chain, a domino effect occurs as the one we are witnessing right now with very dramatic consequences.
In a recent scientific report, a genetic study that has been carried out in recent months on SARS-CoV-2 tells us that this virus originated in wildlife. The virus managed to cross the barrier between species and thus contaminate humans. This was a study of the virus genome, tracking a main suspect: a species of bat, of the Rhinolophinae subfamily, which transmitted the virus to an intermediate host and the protagonist of this story. All theories are pointing to the pangolin.
The pangolin is a rare animal, it resembles between an armadillo, a porcupine, anteater and a sloth. In the past, pangolins belonged to the class of those species; however, genetic studies indicate rather that pangolins belong to the Laurasiatheria superorder. In other words, they are evolutionarily closely related to most species of carnivores.
There are eight species of pangolins in the world of which three of them are critically in danger of extinction (according to the IUCN or International Union for Conservation of Nature). It is the most commercialized mammal worldwide and is trafficked for several reasons, such as food, amulet, pet or traditional medicine, among others. Human contact through the consumption of this animal, as exotic food or medicine has facilitated the spreading of the virus, thus causing the coronavirus pandemic.
This is not the first time that virus transmission has occurred between wild animals to humans. The 2003 SARS epidemic originated from civets, sold on the black markets as pets. The MERS in 2012 originated from camels that spread to humans through contact and so did avian influenza, Ebola, HIV, and many other emerging infectious diseases, or EIDs. Generally, it originates in animals and then its spreads to humans, this phenomenon is called: zoonosis.
We are witnessing how wildlife can cause zoonotic events that carry enormous risks to public health, biosecurity and even global instability. We are witnessing a chain of interconnected amplifying events capable of spreading a virus throughout the world. Globalization and modern means of air transport have made it easier and faster for this virus to spread. But the most important thing is human activities, these can significantly increase exposure to zoonotic pathogens, which we are obviously not prepared to face. The illegal trafficking of wild species, the degradation of ecosystems and loss of habitat, the extinction of species and the breaking of ecological chains are the factors that contributed with great influence on what we are experiencing today. These activities in turn contribute to a much bigger problem: global warming and this opens the doors widely for pathogens.
Illegal trafficking of wild animals is in high demand and is estimated to be the fourth largest organized criminal activity in the world, after narcotics and human trafficking. The probability that SARS-CoV-2 came to infect humans through illegal wildlife trafficking is very high. China is one of the countries with the highest consumption demand for species, such as the pangolin, this activity is not 100% strictly regulated by the authorities in most countries of the world. These regulations must be integrated with human health, animal health and environmental health practices, since these are interdependent. It is important to point out that biodiverse ecosystems, in their natural state, limit exposures and the potential impact of pathogens through a buffering effect, minimizing the possibilities of human contagion; hence, the importance of protecting ecosystems and its biodiversity.
As we, humans as hosts, assist in the global expansion of the coronavirus, we must remember the importance of environmental health as a key factor in our own human-health. The role to be played by ministries of environment and natural resources, scientific research institutes, NGOs, wildlife management departments and veterinary medicine is of utmost importance in filling the current gaps that exists today in the surveillance of illegal trafficking of wildlife and public health.
In conclusion, pangolin should be the protagonist of a happy story, the act of extracting a wild animal from its habitat to later sell it as a pet or kill it for human consumption, is a cruel, selfish and criminal act that can put at risk humanity. Education could not be the most essential key to combat these socio-ecological problems, especially a successful, precise and well-established scientific-environmental education in schools. This can ensure a better future for humanity and biodiversity.
By Diego Valverde (Professor of Sciences, Environmental Scientist and Marine Biologist).