Why coronavirus conspiracy theories are so dangerous for both humans and wildlife

Why coronavirus conspiracy theories are so dangerous for both humans and wildlife

The Trump Administration is doing you, me, and the natural world no favors with its coronavirus conspiracy theories. By suggesting the coronavirus was made in a military lab in China, the administration is distracting attention from the real source of this pandemic — and thus failing to prevent the next one.

On Wednesday, President Trump said of the coronavirus, “I don’t like how it got here, because it could have been stopped, but no, I view the invisible enemy like a war.” This followed his statement on April 30 in which he said he had a “high degree of confidence” the virus came from a Wuhan lab, but wasn’t “allowed” to give us specifics on the supposed evidence.

Trump’s accusations were backed up this week by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who said, “I can tell you that there is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan.” While Pompeo appeared to walk back those bold claims the following day, saying, “We don’t have certainty,” he still claimed there was “significant evidence.”

While the president had been bandying about this crazy conspiracy theory about the virus’s origins for a while now, which picked up steam in various conservative media op-eds, until this week, the rest of the US administration had been focused on the real source of the virus: the consumption of wildlife.

Just two weeks prior, Secretary Pompeo had demanded that China close down its wildlife markets, saying in a statement, “Given the strong link between illegal wildlife sold in wet markets and zoonotic diseases, the United States has called on the People’s Republic of China to permanently close its wildlife wet markets and all markets that sell illegal wildlife.”

That accusatory tone was itself not helpful, a point we’ll get to, but at least it was directed at the correct culprit. By changing the subject, these conspiracy theories don’t just put wildlife at risk. They put the whole world at risk.

Because one thing is certain — if we don’t focus attention on the real source of this pandemic, the next one will be here soon.

The real origin of the virus

Experts are confident in their assessment that this virus came from wild animals. Despite what the administration may say, even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still says on its own website that the origin of the coronavirus “suggest[s] a likely single, recent emergence of this virus from an animal reservoir.”

In an interview with National Geographic on Monday, the CDC’s director Dr. Anthony Fauci went into more detail, noting that the scientific consensus “is very, very strongly leaning toward this could not have been artificially or deliberately manipulated … Everything about the stepwise evolution over time strongly indicates that [this virus] evolved in nature and then jumped species.”

Matador spoke with other scientists who agreed. “Analysis of the genetic makeup of the coronavirus suggests that it has not been engineered,” Professor Stephen Turner, Head of the Department of Microbiology at Australia’s Monash University, told Matador via email.

Turner explained that the virus has little in common with known human coronaviruses, and the adaptation of this virus had not even been predicted by scientists — making a manmade source unlikely. It’s possible that adaptations came from “repeated jumps back and forth between humans and an intermediate host,” said Turner.

Even in China, following the onset of the virus, there was intense discussion about the role of wildlife consumption in bringing about the virus and the need to end it.

“Especially in the early weeks and months of the virus here, everybody was talking about wildlife — the state media, the public on social media. People were pretty outraged that it was happening again, because people had lived through SARS … You saw all these campaigns to stop consuming wildlife. It was everywhere,” says Steve Blake, Chief Representative in China for WildAid, which works to end the illegal wildlife trade.

The virus for SARS — like MERS, Ebola, and HIV viruses — all originated in mammals, scientists tell us. As the CDC notes, the origin of the HIV virus, for example, has been traced back to the consumption of chimpanzees in Central Africa.

The HIV example is important as it tells us something else. While viruses like SARS and the novel coronavirus now afflicting the world can be traced to wildlife markets in East Asia, other viruses jumped from animals somewhere else, be that Central Africa, the Middle East, or another location.

That’s because the consumption of wildlife alone is only one part of the problem. The other reason that viruses from mammals are reaching more humans is because we are destroying their habitats and causing biodiversity loss.

“If you preserve higher diversity, you have less density per species,” says Professor Josef Setelle, a research scientist in Germany’s Helmholtz-Centre for Environmental Research. Conversely, he explains, “biodiversity loss means some species become more dominant.”

That matters, explains Settele, since when you have more species in an ecosystem, any one species that can host a virus is dispersed in what scientists call the “dilution effect.” When you begin to lose many other species, the opposite happens, where you have a greater concentration of a host species in a given area, causing an “amplification” of the virus there.

“There will always be a risk of these pandemics,” acknowledges Settele, but their “frequency is increasing.” We should be alarmed by this and heed the warning posited by Settele — and myriad other scientists — to preserve the diversity of our ecosystems.

We perhaps shouldn’t be surprised that the administration is failing to use this moment to do right by our planet. After all, it has been taking advantage of our collective distraction to roll back environmental protections.

But at least it should be listening to its own CDC on the source of the coronavirus so that we can stop the next pandemic from originating in a live animal market, where numerous species plucked from the wild are sometimes housed together in a single cage.

The importance of protecting wildlife to avoid future pandemics

Fortunately, at least China is still paying attention to the source of the virus.

“Immediately when this stuff happened, the government ceased all sales of wildlife, like all of it,” said Blake of WildAid’s China office. Today, all of those sales are still prohibited, said Blake, and the many ministries involved — such as those dealing with agriculture, fisheries, and wildlife — are taking a longer-term look at the sale of these products.

“The actions behind closing down wildlife sales, updating wildlife management laws, that’s all still very, very strictly enforced and going through,” said Blake. “It’s a long process to really update these laws and regulations, but that’s still going forward completely unhampered by this international climate right now.”

Positive steps that Blake points to include a new list of animals that the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture says can be considered livestock to be bred and sold. The proposed list includes everything a consumer in the US might expect, like a few types of pigs, cows, chickens, and ducks, as well as some other “special” livestock like reindeer and ostriches.

Naturally, the list of permissible animals does not include endangered animals. That’s a win not only for animals like pangolins, but it’s also a long-term win for humans, too — since keeping those animals alive in their own habitats also preserves biodiversity. And that biodiversity is the other necessary ingredient to slow the increasing emergence of new and scary diseases.

What is now happening in China as a result of the US administration’s critical coronavirus theories, though, is that the discussion of the viral source has gotten a lot more muted.

“As the international pressure and harsher tone towards China has taken hold in the last few weeks, there has been a lot less of that discussion, which is really unfortunate,” said Blake. “It’s not as if China is all of a sudden not addressing the wildlife issue, but it’s not as played up as it was for a really long time — really it’s because of the pointing the finger, the blame over the origin.”

So let’s not get caught up in the talk about whether it came from a military lab in Wuhan or a military lab in the US. We’re better off focusing in the short term on staying healthy, and the world is better off focusing in the long term on the real things that will keep us safe: preserving biodiversity and not eating unusual animals stolen away from their wild habitats. And that is easier to do when we work together.

“The big danger is we get distracted, and there’s all these tits for tats. ‘It was your lab.’ ‘It was your lab,” said Peter Knights, the CEO of WildAid. “If the president keeps accusing, accusing, accusing them, they’ll deny it. And then you avoid dealing with the real problem.”

“Right now we should be collaborating and cooperating to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” added Knights. We couldn’t agree more.

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