By Ms. Alokparna Sengupta*
As the pandemic continues to devour scores of humans around the globe, it’s imperative to look at the source of this ghastly feast of human suffering and death. Spillover events like the recent novel corona virus outbreak have occurred in the past, and the only constant that aids the emergence of such pandemics is- the quickly forgotten or not heeded lessons from the past.
Zoonotic spillovers have always been brewing in wet markets and factory farms, keeping us on the edge of new disease cataclysm. The frightening commonality among Emerging Infectious Diseases (EIA) is that they mostly jumped to humans from animals. A study published in a peer-reviewed journal “Nature” reverberated the FAOs 2007 report showing that zoonotic gateways are responsible for 60% of emerging infectious diseases such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), HIV, Ebola, Nipah,etc.
The novel corona virus may have originated in the wet markets of Wuhan, but they aren’t exclusive breeding grounds of pandemics. The wet markets across the globe are hotspots for future pandemics waiting to happen. In the past, interventions have only been exercised as a temporary measure to abate the spread of pandemics. A pressing need for a combination of interventions ranging from regulation of animal agriculture and live animal markets, closure of meat shops that do not adhere to FSSAI Guidelines on Slaughterhouses and Meat (hereinafter, “FSSAI Guidelines”)[i] and unlicensed pet shops should be acknowledged and acted upon. Time will never be ripe than now to act upon! We are amidst a crisis like never before and in order to ensure that we do not land up in similar situations in future, we need to overhaul our definition of food.
Wildlife Trade: A Petri Dish of Pandemics
The zoological biodiversity in the wet markets is appalling. Species, that are geographically spaced thousands of miles apart and are never together naturally in the wild, are piled on top of one another in hot, squalid and crammed conditions. And it is one of such markets in Wuhan that became the epicentre of the COVID19 outbreak which the world is currently reeling under.
Why are such markets considered to be a “perfect storm” for zoonotic spillovers? The close proximity of various species with compromised immune systems owing to the stress makes them vulnerable to pathogens carried by each other. This risk is further exacerbated by unsanitary conditions. In such markets dead and live animals, both domestic and wild are sold out in the open. The floor of the wet markets is a mixing bowl where the blood and bodily fluids of several different species are splattered making it an unprecedented source of transmission of infectious diseases and the perfect pathways for pathogens to jump from wild animals to humans.[ii]
The risk of exposure is for both the handlers and the people consuming these animals. But the sellers are at a greater risk as mostly the sanitary and hygiene conditions of these markets is poor to non-existent. The handling of the animals is done without any personal protection and they spend a considerable amount of time in close proximity to the animals. Both the animals that are traded and people in such markets function under tremendous stress which in turn suppresses their immuno-capacity making them perfect hosts for pathogens.
But wet markets are not exclusive to China. They are sitting in every part of the world, including India. Animal markets like MurgiChowk in Hyderabad[iii], Crawford market[iv] in Mumbai, Russell Market in Karnataka[v] and Mir ShikarToli in Bihar[vi] not only deal in exotic wildlife species that are bred in captivity in the most horrific conditions but also with those that are smuggled, endangered and endemic.
Factory Farms: The Human-Animal Interface for Emerging Pandemics
While discussing zoonotic diseases, one mustn’t forget the way our food is produced in factory farms.
Factory farms are absolute incubators for infectious diseases. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) 2007 report, “three out of four emerging pathogens affecting humans over the past decade have originated from animals or animal products.”[vii]
Animals in industrialized facilities are tightly crammed together in inhumane and disease-ridden conditions. These animals and birds stand beak to beak or snout to snout depriving them of their mobility and freedom to perform natural behaviour. Such an arrangement puts them under immense stress and impairs their immune systems. And then there is ammonia that keeps on accumulating from the mounds of decomposing waste burning their lungs and eyes.
In fact, the most pressing public health issue that stems from such farms for example, an egg production facility where tens of thousands of birds are packed together, is the vast amount of manure that it generates. The manure from such arrangements contains an assortment of pathogens like E-Coli and salmonella, growth hormones, and chemicals that are used as additives to manure or to clean equipment. They enter the ecosystem and food chain and have the potential to cause unprecedented damage to public health and environment. This is because intensive animal agriculture generates wastes that transcends the buffering capacity of the surrounding ecosystems.
The practice of selection for specific genes in farmed animals compounds the problem, as genetically identical animals allow for easy transmission of the virus without facing any hurdle of genetic variants that may inhibit the virus to spread. And all this is yet again a perfect storm for zoonotic spill overs affecting those employed in such farms, people residing in the surrounding areas and those handling and buying these animals in the meat market.
International organisations like the World Health Organisation(WHO), Centre for Disease Control(CDC) have been cautioning for several years now about how industrialized animal agriculture has been ratcheting up the risk of zoonotic diseases. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization(FAO) in its 2013 report noted that, “Livestock health is the weakest link in our global health chain.” [viii]Yet, these warnings have been ignored only to pave the way for infectious disease to resurface time and again.
One may argue that the current pandemic is a result of wildlife trade, but the practice of industrialized factory farming is no less fatal. Be it the H5N1 avian influenza of 1997 that had a mortality rate of 60%.[ix] or the H1N1 swine flu of 2009 that originated in pig farms in North America, and many other infectious diseases came from factory farms and are still brewing in such facilities all over the world. A study conducted in Nepal that surveyed raw meat markets found out that in less developed countries, “Contamination of raw meat easily occurs from external sources during bleeding, handling, and processing via knives, tools, clothes, hands, and air”.[x]This is important to heed since food borne pathogens are the leading cause of illness and death in less developed nations of the world.[xi]
It is high time to question and refine our food systems to make them more sustainable. This can only be achieved with the help of strong political and cultural will. Are we ready to eliminate the ills of industrialized animal agriculture or will we continue to support the current food system and foster pandemics with our choices?
A Need For Ban To Avert Future Zoonotic Spillovers
It is a given that COVID-19 is an outcome of all the unheeded warnings that epidemiologists have been issuing for years. But where do we look ahead from this point to decrease the likelihood of future pandemics? A part of the solution lies in law enforcement and policy interventions and other in overhauling our dietary habits to move towards plant-based solutions.
The government should begin by clamping down on wildlife markets such as Crawford market in Mumbai, Russell Market in Karnataka and Mir ShikarToli in Bihar, MurgiChowk in Telangana and others that carry on illegal wildlife trade in the guise of legal live animal trade. Likewise, the government should also put a full stop to fairs like SonepurMela in Bihar which is nothing but a mixing bowl of exotic and wild animals with domestic ones. These animals are crammed together in close proximity to each other in stressful conditions making it the perfect ground for pathogenic breeding and provides a conducive environment to jump the species barrier.
To curb the rampant and unchecked trade in exotic species of wildlife an urgent enactment of a legislation that follows the guidelines of Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species of flora and fauna (CITES),[xii] to help regulate domestic breeding and trade in exotic species of wildlife should be brought in. Another important legal initiative in this direction would be to stop the import and export of exotic species for pet trade or consumption with immediate effect until the CITES legislation is enacted.
Regulation of live animal markets and closure of unregistered pet shops is also an important measure. Most of the pet shops that operate in the live animal markets are illegal and rarely regulated. Enforcement of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act’s (Pet Shop) Rules, 2018 should be strictly followed in all the states across the country making it compulsory for all the pet shops to get registered with their respective state animal welfare boards. In states, where the body is missing efforts should be expedited to ensure formation and registration of State Animal Welfare Boards.
While the dog-meat trade has nothing to do with the COVID crisis, however this trade comes with its own box of diseases like trichinellosis, cholera and rabies that pose significant risk to human health. The World Health Organisation has warned that eating dog meat increases the chances of contracting Cholera. The risk is not limited to handling but also the consumption and transportation of the animals. These dogs are slaughtered in unsanitary conditions and transported across the borders of Assam and West Bengal in large numbers. With the unknown morbidity history of the dogs, this trade not only violates the food safety regulations of the country but also facilitates spread of dog-mediated diseases like rabies. We are one of the few countries in Asia with an explicit ban on dog meat trade and consumption, the only effort required on our part to become the torchbearer in this regard is the strict enforcement of the ban. This will not only aid the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals[xiii] and deliver the objectives under “One Health Strategy”[xiv] but would also showcase how we as a country prioritise the health of our citizens and the welfare of our companion animals.
Finally, immediate interventions on the part of the government to regulate animal agriculture and closure of meat shops that do not adhere to the FSSAI guidelines[xv] in the country is a prerequisite to control transmission of current and future diseases. The regulations and transport of farmed animals largely remain unimplemented and the country has no guidelines for trait selection, housing and rearing of poultry or swine rearing. The horrid conditions in intensive animal agriculture are hotbeds of pandemics and infringe upon the right to life of all citizens by exposing them to deadly pathogens through meat consumption.
Food Revolution: Because Animal Agriculture is Making Us Sick!
Revolutionizing food systems along with legislative measures is a great panacea to the emerging infectious diseases. Be it COVID-19 or any other infectious disease that crippled humanity in the past years, most have their origin in animals- wild or farmed. It’s time for stakeholders- be it the government, institutions or individuals, to band together to build sustainable food systems with reduced dependence on animal protein.
At Humane Society International/India we are advocating for a sustainable food system through our “Reduce.Refine.Replace” policy. Refinement helps to bring in animal welfare standards and reduce ecological footprint by avoiding conventional factory farm products.Reducing your consumption of animal protein helps save animals from a lifetime of suffering and exploitation. Lastly, replacement of animal protein with plant-protein that yields enormous benefits for all- human health, animals and the environment.
We can either move towards a kinder and sustainable world through adoption of better practices or keep spiralling in pandemics if we choose not to change. The choice is ours!
About the Author
*Ms. Alokparna Sengupta is the Managing Director for Humane Society International/India. She has worked in the animal protection movement for close to a decade. She has been part of several government and scientific committees including that of Indian Council of Medical Research, CDSCO, Central Insecticides Board, Bureau of Indian Standards, etc. She has also been part of several stakeholder committee meetings to bring in animal friendly policies in India.
Having obtained a degree of Masters in Science (M.Sc) for Biotechnology from Osmania University, she is currently pursuing her long – distance LLM from National Law University, Delhi,
[i]Slaughter House- Meat, Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, <https://archive.fssai.gov.in/dam/jcr:942e63fb-d959-4343-a330-0ae938ff791e/RCD_Draft_Slaughter_House_Meat__Poultry_01_11_2017.pdf> accessed 6 June 2020.
[ii]Humane Society International, Wildlife Markets and COVID-19 (White Paper, 2020)<https://www.hsi.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Wildlife-Markets-and-COVID-19-White-Paper.pdf> accessed 6 June 2020.
[iii]‘Hyderabad: Endangered birds on sale in Murgi Chow’ Deccan Chronicle (Hyderabad, 11 January 2017)<https://www.deccanchronicle.com/nation/in-other-news/110117/hyderabad-endangered-birds-on-sale-in-murgi-chowk.html> accessed 6 June 2020.
[iv]‘Ensure no illegal sale of animals at Crawford Market: Bombay HC to BMC, cops’ The Indian Express(Mumbai, 11 April 2017)<https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/mumbai/ensure-no-illegal-sale-of-animals-at-crawford-market-bombay-hc-to-bmc-cops-4608098/> accessed 6 June 2020.
[v]Odeal D’Souza, ‘Shivajinagar’s hell-on-earth for animals’ DNA India(Bangalore, 1 June 2009) <https://www.dnaindia.com/bangalore/report-shivajinagar-s-hell-on-earth-for-animals-1260798> accessed 6 June 2020.
[vi]Piyush Kumar Tripathi,‘Awareness key to stem illegal animal trade’, The Telegraph(Patna,June 8 2020)<https://www.telegraphindia.com/states/bihar/awareness-key-to-stem-illegal-animal-trade/cid/1358516> accessed 6 June 2020.
[vii]JoachimOtte and others, ‘Industrial livestock production and global health risks: Pro-Poor Livestock Policy Initiative Research Report’  Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/43521028_Industrial_livestock_production_and_global_health_risks> accessed 6 June 2020.
[viii]‘Surge in diseases of animal origin necessitates new approach to health’ (Food and Agriculture Organization United Nations,16 December 2013)<http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/210621/icode/> accessed 6 June 2020.
[ix]‘Influenza’ (World Health Organization, April 2011)<https://www.who.int/influenza/human_animal_interface/avian_influenza/h5n1_research/faqs/en/> accessed 6 June 2020.
[x]Bantawa K and others,‘Food-borne bacterial pathogens in marketed raw meat of Dharan, eastern Nepal’ National Center for Biotechnology Information<https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6114039/#CR8> accessed 6 June 2020.
[xii]Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, (Washington D.C., 3 March 1973)<https://www.cites.org/sites/default/files/eng/disc/CITES-Convention-EN.pdf> accessed 6 June 2020.
[xiii]‘Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’ (Sustainable Development Goals Knowledge Platform) <https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/post2015/transformingourworld> accessed 6 June 2020.
[xiv]‘One Health Basics’(Centre for disease Control and Prevention)<https://www.cdc.gov/onehealth/basics/index.html#:~:text=One%20Health%20is%20a%20collaborative,plants%2C%20and%20their%20shared%20environment.> accessed 6 June 2020.
[xv]FSSAI Guidelines (n 1).