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The Extinction Chronicles

New Data Leads To Rethinking (Once More) Where The Pandemic Actually Began

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July 19, 20214:39 PM ETHeard on All Things Considered

Michaeleen Doucleff 2016 square


New Data Leads To Rethinking (Once More) Where The Pandemic Actually Began

Audio will be available later today.

Back in May, a group of scientists — many at the top of the virology field — shifted the debate about the origins of COVID-19. They published a letter in the journal Science saying the lab-leak theory needs to be taken more seriously by the scientific community.

Given the current evidence available, the scientists wrote, the outbreak is just as likely to have originated from a laboratory — specifically the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which studies coronaviruses — as from an infected animal. “We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data,” they concluded.

Now one of the scientists who signed that letter says new data has come to light. And that information, summarized in an online review, has changed his thinking.

“I do think transmission from another species, without a lab escape, is the most likely scenario by a long shot,” says evolutionary biologist Michael Worobey at the University of Arizona.

In fact, Worobey thinks, the most likely scenario, given the current information, is that the pandemic began at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, even though the World Health Organization says it’s unlikely to have started there. “The data are very consistent with it starting at the market — very consistent,” Worobey says.

A Sherlock Holmes in the world of pandemics

Over the past decade, Worobey has become a bit like the Sherlock Holmes of pandemic origins. His work has helped explain how the 1918 flu emerged and how HIV came to the U.S. earlier than people thought. “It got to New York City pretty darn early, probably around 1970, 1971, somewhere in there,” Worobey told NPR in 2016.

During the coronavirus pandemic, Worobey has been studying how SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19, spreads around densely populated cities such as Wuhan, China, where the outbreak is thought to have begun. Using this information, he built computer simulations to model how SARS-CoV-2 may have transmitted through Wuhan early in the outbreak, before doctors detected the first cases, likely in December 2019. The models could estimate key aspects of the early outbreak, such as when the first case occurred, how long the virus spread in the city before doctors noticed it and how many cases were in the city at that point.Article continues after sponsor message

A few months ago, Worobey says, his models couldn’t differentiate between the lab-leak theory and the alternative theory — that the virus jumped directly from an animal into people. Both theories were consistent with the data. “So I was on that Science letter,” he says, “asserting that more investigation is needed of both possibilities.”

Then two new pieces of information came to light. First, Woroby started to look more closely at the geography of early known COVID-19 cases — cases that occurred in December 2019. He took data from the World Health Organization’s report from March and plotted the date on a map if where people with confirmed cases lived in Wuhan.

Why the location of the market and the lab matters

Then he did something that the WHO didn’t: He added to the map the location of the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market and the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where scientists studied bat coronaviruses. “It’s a very simple thing to do,” Worobey says. “But it really paints a pretty clear picture, right?”

The dots show the cases starting right near the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market and then radiating out from there. “The Huanan market seems like the bull’s-eye of this outbreak. It’s pretty extraordinary.”

What about cases near the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which is more than 10 miles from the market? “There are no cases around the WIV,” Worobey says. “If the outbreak did start in the lab, the bottom line is, it would be odd for it not to be spreading from there rather than from elsewhere.”

The other piece of data, which helped shift Worobey’s thinking, concerns the products sold at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. Was there anything at the market that has been previously known to spread SARS coronaviruses?

Since the pandemic began, the Chinese government claimed the vendors at the market didn’t sell any illegal wildlife. “They said the market was operating completely legally,” says biosecurity expert Gigi Gronvall at Johns Hopkins University. “And just on the face of it, you just know, that’s not correct.

“And lo and behold, it’s not,” she adds.

Last month, researchers published a study showing that the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market was one of four markets in Wuhan selling illegal wildlife, including palm civets and raccoon dogs, which are both known to spread SARS-CoV-2. Scientists believe civets triggered the first SARS coronavirus pandemic, in 2003.

The researchers, from China West Normal University in Nanchong, surveyed 17 markets across Wuhan between May 2017 and November 2019. They found more than 47,000 live animals across 38 different species for sale, including 31 species protected under Chinese law.

This new information about the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, along with the maps and modeling data, don’t prove an animal origin for the pandemic by any means, Gronvall says. Nor do they disprove the lab-leak theory, she says: “There are lots of pieces to still fill in, but this report [from Worobey and his colleagues] ties a lot of the pieces together that say, ‘There is a really credible story for an animal origin of SARS-CoV2.’ “

What we do know — and still don’t know — about cases

Now, of course, all the data presented to support Worobey’s hypothesis come with caveats — big caveats. The Chinese government tightly controlled and managed the information coming from China, especially information concerning the early days of the pandemic. The reported COVID-19 cases in December 2019 are only a small fraction of the actual number circulating in Wuhan at the time. The government refuses to release the raw data for patients in 2019 or allow researchers to search for even earlier cases through the analyses of blood bank samples or epidemiological interviews.

In addition, the Huanan market sits in the middle of a densely populated part of the city, where many elderly people live, points out Alina Chan, a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass., who has promoted the lab-leak theory online.

“There are many more people living north of the river, and there are a lot of elderly folk living there in a lot of care homes there,” said Chan, as she showed me a population density map of Wuhan, published in February 2020. “So it doesn’t surprise me that the early outbreak doesn’t map to the [WIV] lab. People don’t live at the labs.”

But, Worobey says, a closer look at the population density in Wuhan indicates the early cases aren’t in the densest part of the city. “It is certainly worth considering the degree to which population densities might play a role in explaining early cases,” Worobey wrote to NPR in an email. “But there does seem to be a pattern in the early data … of considerable numbers of cases both to the north and south of the Huanan Market, whereas the large patch of really high numbers of elderly people in Wuhan is in the very southern extent of the central cluster shown.”

Furthermore, he notes, the earliest known cases skewed young. The highest number of cases occurred in people ages 29 to 49 and then in people ages 50 to 65. The vast majority were under 65, a study found.

And so, given the data available right now, he believes the most likely scenario is that the pandemic started at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, not the lab. “It does seem a pretty weird coincidence that [a big outbreak occurs] at one of four places in Wuhan that sells things like civets and raccoon dogs, which are the likely suspects as intermediaries to SARS-CoV-2.”

But if new data comes to light tomorrow, his thinking may shift again, Worobey says. That, in many ways, is the way science works.

Kaporos, Largest Live Animal Wet Market in the United States, Opens Ahead of Yom Kippur


In the days leading up to Yom Kippur, tens of thousands of Hasidim in Brooklyn will purchase and physically handle live chickens in a wet market setting. Wearing little to no PPE, they will swing the chickens around their heads as part of an annual atonement ritual called Kaporos. The chickens will be killed in approximately 30 makeshift slaughterhouses erected without permits on public streets in residential neighborhoods in violation of eight New York City health codes. The body parts, blood and feces of thousands of animals will contaminate the streets of South Williamsburg, Crown Heights and Borough Park for several days.

Kaporos is, in effect, the largest live animal wet market in the country and the only one in which the customers handle the animals before the animals are killed. Many of the animals have compromised immune systems and show signs of respiratory disease. The chickens make each other sick, and they also infect some of the people who handle them with e. Coli and campylobacter. If the viruses that these animals carry commingle and mutate into a more dangerous strain that could be spread among humans, then these Kaporos wet markets could be the source of the another zoonotic disease outbreak. According to a toxicologist who studied fecal and blood samples taken during Kaporos, the ritual “constitutes a dangerous condition” and “poses a significant public health hazard.”

During Kaporos, tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews purchase and physically handle live animals, without PPE, putting themselves and the public at risk of zoonotic disease

In addition to putting all of us at risk of another zoonotic disease pandemic, Kaporos, which attracts hordes of people in small areas, could be a COVID “super spreader” event because Hasidic communities have been observed not wearing masks or engaging in social distancing.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio; his Health Commissioner, Dr. Dave Chokshi; and his Deputy Commissioner of Disease Control, Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, allow this mass ritual slaughter to take place, in spite of the health code violations and risks to public health, because NYC’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities represent a powerful voting bloc that can make or break elections in NYC and NY State. In fact, taxpayers help to underwrite the cost because the NYPD provides barricades, floodlights and a large police presence at many of the Kaporos sites. Given the risks and the disruption and death we have already endured already with pandemic, how can the Mayor and his health deputies allow Kaporos to take place?

The Kaporos wet market contaminates the public streets and sidewalks of several NYC neighborhoods with the blood, feces and body parts of thousands of animals killed in pop up slaughterhouses erected without permits in violation of 8 NYC health laws

During Kaporos, some of the live and dead chickens are discarded onto the streets. Rescuers bring the survivors who they find to veterinarians and sanctuaries to live out their lives in peace

For the past several years, animal rights and public health advocates have pled with Mayor de Blasio and his revolving door of health commissioners (Dr. Mary Bassett, Dr. Oxiris Barbot and now Dr. Dave Chokshi) to shut down Kaporos, given the health code violations and the risks to the public health. Both in court and in the media, city attorneys and spokespeople for the NYC Department of Health have defended Kaporos and argued that the City has discretion over which laws to enforce. Throughout the month of September, the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos plastered 300 posters around New York City to sound the alarm about Kaporos.

The Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos, a project of United Poultry Concerns, plastered billboards around NYC to educate the public about the risk to public health created by Kaporos


Animal rights activists hold eerie demonstration in uptown Waterloo

WATERLOO — Wearing biohazard suits, activists gave an eerie performance at an animal-rights demonstration in Waterloo Town Square Sunday afternoon.

Silently, they held signs up over their heads naming various pandemics past, in order to bring attention to a connection between industrial animal farming practices and pandemic outbreaks.

Around them played the constant drone of air-raid sirens and a voice recording that repeatedly said: “This is not a drill. This is a warning. COVID-19 is a message.” played on repeat.

The protest organizers, K-W Animal Save, said the same scene was also played out at the same time in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.

A few passers-by stopped to take pictures. Patrons at nearby restaurant patio tables looked on.

The activists believe the current COVID-19 and many other global pandemics are caused by the industrial farming of animals.

Mo Markham, an organizer of the Waterloo protest, said this pandemic was predicted by global scientists and experts unless major changes were made.

She points the finger at wet markets where live animals are sold, and increasing amounts of industrial animal agriculture that encroaches on wild animal habitat and increases interaction between virus-carrying wild animals and livestock and humans.

161 ways to prevent another pandemic: Cambridge University academics say going vegan,

 banning trade of exotic animals and clamping down on crowded farms will stop the world being hit by more killer diseases

  • University of Cambridge study said shutting down wet markets was not enough 
  • Highlighted seven ways pandemic could jump from animals to humans in future
  • Gave 160 ways to mitigate future crises, from going vegan to limiting livestock

Going vegan, banning the trade of exotic animals and clamping down on crowded farms could prevent the world from being ravaged by another pandemic, leading scientists warned today.

A 25-strong team of wildlife and veterinary experts have identified seven routes by which pandemics could occur moving forward — and 161 ways to reduce the risk of another infectious disease striking every corner of the planet.

The team — led by Cambridge University experts — said humans must drastically change the way they interact with animals or it is ‘only a matter of time’ before another pandemic rocks the world.

The group say wildlife farming, the transport, trade and consumption of meat, the exotic pet industry and increased human encroachment on wildlife habitats, are among the ways new diseases could spread in humans.They propose clamping down on the amount of animals people can farm, keeping livestock away from domestic pets and even going vegan to reduce the risk.

Eating a more plant-based diet would bring down the global demand for animal meat and lead to less animals being farmed and transported in cramped conditions, where disease can easily jump between species, the researchers claim.

Lead researcher Professor William Sutherland, a zoologist at the University of Cambridge, said: ‘A lot of recent campaigns have focused on banning the trade of wild animals, and dealing with wild animal trade is really important yet it’s only one of many potential routes of infection.

‘We should not assume the next pandemic will arise in the same way as Covid-19; we need to be acting on a wider scale to reduce the risk.’

Covid-19 is thought to have originated in bats, which are known carriers of hundreds of different kinds of coronaviruses.

But it’s unlikely that bats directly gave the virus to humans, based on what’s known about transmission of earlier coronaviruses.

Scientists believe the disease was passed on to another animal, an ‘intermediate host’, which then infected humans.

The prevailing theory is this process took place at Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China, where exotic animals could be slaughtered on order.

Live and dead animals were kept in cramped cages at the maligned market, which experts say made it the perfect breeding ground for disease.

56% of wild animals in Vietnam’s restaurants have a coronavirus, study says

A new report has found an alarmingly high rate of coronaviruses in wildlife about to be served at restaurants in Vietnam.

While the country is looking to stop importing imperiled animals to eat, it has yet to do so, and there are still “wildlife restaurants” that have rats, bats, civet cats, snakes, bear, monkeys and pangolins on the menu.

In a study that appears in the pre-print journal bioRxiv, researchers found 56 percent of wild rats were infected with a coronavirus by the time they were ready to be served at restaurants — double from when the animals were first caught.

Coronavirus detection rates in rodent populations sampled in their “natural” habitat were around 0 to 2 percent, jumping to 21 percent by the time they had been caught by traffickers. Due to confinement conditions, by the time the animals hit “wet” markets, they had a 32 percent contamination rate before rising even higher at restaurants, where they are killed and immediately served to diners.

The study was put together by scientists from Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the Department of Animal Health of the Viet Nam Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Viet Nam National University of Agriculture, EcoHealth Alliance and One Health Institute of the University of California, Davis

It is thought many coronaviruses incubate in animals before “jumping to humans,” as may have happened with the most recent global pandemic.

The authors of the report blame stress, confinement, shedding and poor nutrition as contributing factors that result in increased coronavirus rates in animals taken from nature to human restaurants.

According to the study, “researchers collected samples at 70 sites in Vietnam, and detected six distinct taxonomic units of known coronaviruses. There is no current evidence to suggest these particular viruses were a human-health threat, but the laboratory techniques used in the study can be utilized to detect emerging or unknown viruses in humans, wildlife and livestock in the future.

Sarah Olson, the associate director of WCS’s Health Program who co-wrote the study, told The Post she was shocked by the results.

“I was expecting maybe 10 percent [of animals found at restaurants to be ill]. But to see over 50 percent is shocking,” Olson said.

“Our study shows how the run-of-the-mill viruses can amplify to a potential spillover into people,” she added. “This issue is more than just wet markets, it’s everything that leads up to them. We need to protect local subsistence hunting but stop the major trade for urban markets. We can decrease the risk of a pandemic on a global scale if we do that.”

Peter Knights, CEO of WildAid, a conservation organization that works to end illegal poaching and consumption of wild animals, agrees. He told The Post in May: “Sixty percent of infectious diseases originate in animals and are transferred to humans … and the risks are increasing with deforestation and climate change. When someone … builds roads into the wild, we come into contact with species we aren’t supposed to. Humans then drive these animals into big cities and sell them at live markets, where the risks increase when you stress these animals or mix these species together.”

Olson also warned: “We are repeating the same mistakes of the past if we don’t take a hard look at human behaviors that breach natural boundaries. [Eating these animals in cities] is not natural. It’s a luxury and not a necessity.”

If this trade isn’t stopped, “worst-case scenario, we would be … on track to see another one of these outbreaks,” she said.

Some scientists believe the COVID-19 pandemic started in a wet market in the Chinese city of Wuhan, possibly jumping from humans via bats or perhaps pangolins, the world’s most-trafficked animal.

“The way these cross-species jump happened is by mixing species that wouldn’t mix in the wild. They transmit diseases in close contact and under stress,” said Knights, who has started a petition calling for the end of wildlife poaching. “The wildlife trade is associated with disease. SARS [allegedly] came from bats via civets cats, HIV was [allegedly] transferred to humans via the bushmeat trade in monkeys and chimpanzees, and now COVID-19 is believed to come from bats, possibly transferred through pangolins.”

And while China and Vietnam have promised to do better, viruses still lurk.

On Thursday it was announced that the trading sections for meat and seafood in Beijing’s wholesale food market were “severely contaminated with the new coronavirus,” according to Reuters.

This comes on the heels of earlier claims by scientists that an apocalyptic bird flu could wipe out half of humanity as environmentalists warned of deadlier pandemics if humans keep destroying the environment.

BREAKING: HSUS, HSLF, HSI release policy plan on wildlife markets, factory farms, companion animals and more to avoid another global health crisis

By Kitty Block and Sara Amundson

May 14, 2020 0 Comments

The coronavirus pandemic has prompted the world to acknowledge the pressing need to change our relationship with animals. From the wildlife markets implicated in the origin of the novel coronavirus to the slaughterhouses that have become clusters for its spread, we now know only too well that our uncaring attitudes and indifferent practices toward animals can have grave consequences for human health.

Health experts already agree that wildlife markets need to close wherever they exist because of the role they have played in this and past pandemics. But fur farms, puppy mills and factory farms are known breeding grounds for viruses and drug resistant bacteria too, because of the terrible conditions in which the animals are kept. If we are to avoid another pandemic, we need to address the inherent problems of these sites of animal use and abuse with urgency as well.

Today, the Humane Society family of organizations is advancing an 11-point policy plan to reduce animal suffering and help prevent future national and global pandemics. These are our recommendations:

Shut down wild animal markets permanently around the world

At these markets, live and dead wild animals are kept in extremely close proximity. Blood, urine, feces and other bodily fluids from the animals mix, creating the perfect environment for pathogens and disease spread.

End the trade of live wild animals

Whether captive-bred or wild-caught, wild animals bought and sold for the exotic pet trade or other commercial purposes can spread a variety of viral, bacterial, fungal and parasitic infections that pose serious health risks to humans.

Ban close encounters with wild animals and their use in traveling shows

Animals stressed by transport, confinement, crowding and handling—conditions common in traveling shows—are more likely to shed pathogens that cause disease.

End fur farming and the fur trade

Animals killed for their fur, like raccoon dogs and foxes, have been known to carry the SARS virus and are often sold and killed on-site at live animal markets like the one in Wuhan, China, tied to the COVID-19 outbreak.

End intensive confinement of farm animals

Intensive confinement of farm animals, including the use of cages for hens and gestation crates for mother pigs, has substantial links to the origin and spread of diseases because of the sheer numbers of animals that are packed together in unsanitary and pathogenic environments.

Shift the global food industry focus to plant-based proteins

Since most zoonotic diseases—diseases that spread from animals to humans—can be traced to farm animals, including chickens, cows, pigs and goats, state and federal governments should fund research to develop more plant-based and cultured meat technologies and global food companies should offer more plant-based options.

End the sale of dogs from puppy mills

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more than once implicated puppy mills, and pet stores that sell them, as sources of disease outbreaks, including recent multistate outbreaks of drug-resistant campylobacter that sickened almost 150 people and sent some of them to the hospital.

End the dog and cat meat trade.

The dog and cat meat trade poses a significant risk of rabies transmission throughout countries where these animals are consumed.

Effectively manage street dog populations

Free roaming dogs are the lead vector of rabies transmission to humans. Fear of rabies often causes humans to mistreat street animals, increasing conflict and bite incidence which can in turn lead to rabies transmission and death.

End cockfighting

The World Health Organization has said cockfighting can be linked to the spread of deadly viruses like the bird flu.

Fund alternatives to animal testing to speed up treatment and vaccines

We are calling for increased investment and a focus on humane, non-animal methods, such as human lung tissue cultures, cell-based models and organ-on-a-chip technologies to help us better understand, prevent and treat diseases, including COVID-19. These methods are quicker, less expensive and more relevant than conventional animal testing.

These are approaches we have long advocated, and we have successfully championed them in many parts of the United States and around the world. Now, even as we continue and expand our work globally to build a stronger animal protection movement, end the cruelest practices and care for animals in crisis, we’ll be pushing policymakers and business leaders to implement our policy recommendations to avoid another pandemic. Working together, we can make our world a safer, and healthier, place for both people and animals.

Sara Amundson is president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.

Did Coronavirus Come from the Bat Guano Trade?

By John Xie
Updated May 11, 2020 09:18 PM
Bats from a cave fly over Wat Khao Cong Phran Temple in search of food during dusk in Ratchaburi province, 130 km (81 miles)… FILE – Bats from a cave fly over Wat Khao Chong Phran Temple in search of food during dusk in Ratchaburi province, west of Bangkok, Thailand, September 14, 2009.

Scientists suspect COVID-19 originally came from a bat, which may have harbored a wide range of coronaviruses. Despite the pandemic, the global trade in bat products continues, including in their highly prized feces, called guano.

Bat guano is commonly used throughout the world as a fertilizer, but it is also used as medicine. It can be found on Amazon, the biggest U.S.
online shopping site, where the Grocery & Gourmet Food category includes a listing for 1 gram priced at $2.95 from a traditional Chinese medicine vendor.

A reservoir of viruses

Known as Ye Ming Sha, or Night Ling Sand, bat guano is one of the most popular ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine. It is used for treating eye disorders, blood stasis and embolism.

Because bats catch flying insects at night, bat guano was traditionally seen as promoting night vision. Some healers recommend putting bat droppings directly into the eyes.

In 2005, Wuhan-based virologist Shi Zhengli, now known as China’s “Bat Woman,” identified dozens of deadly SARS-like coronaviruses that were found in samples of bat droppings that Shi and her team collected in caves.
A Buddhist monk sweeps up bat guano in a cave near Wat Khao Cong Phran Temple in Ratchaburi province, 130 km (81 miles) west of… FILE – A Buddhist monk sweeps up bat guano in a cave near Wat Khao Chong Phran Temple in Ratchaburi province, Thailand, September 14, 2009.

One of those fecal samples contained a viral genome that is 96% identical to the coronavirus that is currently spreading across the globe.

Recently, six entirely new coronaviruses have been discovered in samples of bat manure from 464 bats by a team led by Smithsonian scientist Marc Valitutto. These viruses are also in the same family as the SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, according to the research.

“Guano is dangerous because it harbors virus,” Dr. Robert Siegel, a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Stanford University, told VOA.

The exact mechanism by which the coronavirus jumped from a bat to a human is the subject of intense global research. Scientists have suggested that because the virus is found in bats’ blood and saliva, transmission could have occurred from a bite. But bats don’t commonly bite humans.

“Most bats do not bite, particularly the kinds of bats associated with coronavirus outbreaks,” Siegel said.

Instead, humans mostly get infected from bats merely by spending time with them, such as when workers collect bat guano from a cave, or when miners or spelunkers spend hours breathing in the same confined space as a bat colony.

“The risk from bats is greatly related to how much contact people have with bats,” said Siegel.

Three years ago, Shi was called in to investigate a virus outbreak in a mine shaft where six miners suffered from pneumonia-like diseases that killed two of them. A bat guano collector carries a bag as he gets out of a bat cave at Wat Khao Chong Phran in Ratchaburi, Thailand March 13, 2020… FILE – A bat guano collector carries a bag as he gets out of a bat cave at Wat Khao Chong Phran in Ratchaburi, Thailand, March 13, 2020.

“Bat guano covered in fungus littered the cave,” Shi told Scientific American in a report published last month. She said it would have been only a matter of time before the miners became sick.

Another scientific report from Thailand in 2013 found coronaviruses in about 4% of collected bat guano samples, leading the researchers to recommend workers use better personal protection when harvesting the guano in caves.

A dangerous trade

Wuhan’s so-called “wet market” that sold live animals remains the suspected original outbreak site of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But German scientist Trudy Wassenaar, who studied the outbreak, suspects the first transmission occurred through bat feces, not bat meat.

In late January, when the genomes of coronavirus were first made public by Chinese researchers, Wassenaar took a closer look at the sequences, trying to determine where the outbreak originated.

One of the questions she asked herself was “how this virus could have reached humans, as it is clearly a bat virus,” Wassenaar said. The question led her and co-author Zou Ying, a Wuhan-based colleague, to write a research paper in February that argued that people more often come into close contact with live bats not for food, but for traditional Chinese medicine. Bat guano collectors fill bag outside of a bat cave at Wat Khao Chong Phran in Ratchaburi, Thailand March 14, 2020. Picture… FILE – Bat guano collectors fill bags outside of a bat cave at Wat Khao Chong Phran in Ratchaburi, Thailand, March 14, 2020.

“The key to this question is money,” she told VOA, because the market for Chinese medicinal products involving bat guano is much bigger than the market for its meat. And that puts the workers who gather the raw materials at high risk.

“Bats are still captured to sell their body parts, which provides a possibility for their viruses to jump to humans, either directly or via an intermediate mammalian host,” she said.

China downplays guano risks

There is no evidence that medicines made from bat guano can transmit the coronavirus. In 2005, when Chinese researchers were grappling with the SARS outbreak from another coronavirus, one of the country’s top respiratory experts, Zhong Nanshan, downplayed the risk from bat guano.
He said because the guano is usually steamed, boiled or fried before going into the medicine, even if there is a virus present, it would be killed within a few minutes.

“Don’t worry about taking Ye Ming Sha,” Zhong said, according to a news report published in The Information Times, a paper published under the official Guangzhou Daily.

Other supporters of the sale of Ye Ming Sha also argued that it is first dried and unlikely to contain infectious virus by the time it reaches customers.

To some scientists, the end product is not the only, or even the main, risk.

They believe that as long as bat guano is being sold, people will continue to go into caves to collect it and risk becoming infected by another bat coronavirus.

Intel shared among US allies indicates virus outbreak more likely came from market, not a Chinese lab

Washington (CNN)Intelligence shared among Five Eyes nations indicates it is “highly unlikely” that the coronavirus outbreak was spread as a result of an accident in a laboratory but rather originated in a Chinese market, according to two Western officials who cited an intelligence assessment that appears to contradict claims by President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

“We think it’s highly unlikely it was an accident,” a Western diplomatic official with knowledge of the intelligence said. “It is highly likely it was naturally occurring and that the human infection was from natural human and animal interaction.” The countries in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing coalition are coalescing around this assessment, the official said, and a second official, from a Five Eyes country, concurred with it. The US has yet to make a formal assessment public.
The Five Eyes alliance is made up of the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — and the countries share a broad range of intelligence in one of the world’s tightest multilateral arrangements.
The assessment from members of the exclusive intelligence-sharing group seems to undermine forceful claims by Trump and Pompeo in recent days, as they have doubled down on the assertion that the outbreak originated from a laboratory in Wuhan, China, rather than a market in the same region.
It will likely increase pressure on the Trump administration to provide evidence to back up its claim, which it has failed to do so far despite the increasingly aggressive rhetoric from the President and his top diplomat.
A third source, also from a Five Eyes nation, told CNN that the level of certainty being expressed by Pompeo and Trump is way out in front of where the current Five Eyes assessment is. This source acknowledged that there is still a possibility that the virus originated from a laboratory, but cautioned there is nothing to make that a legitimate theory yet.
The source added that “clearly the market is where it exploded from,” but how the virus got to the market remains unclear.
But without greater cooperation and transparency from the Chinese it’s impossible to say with total certainty, the first official added.
The third source said it is also possible the US is not sharing all of its intelligence. While the overwhelming majority is shared among the Five Eyes members, there are pockets of information that each country keeps to itself.
In an interview with National Geographic that published on Monday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said he doesn’t believe the virus originated in a lab.
“If you look at the evolution of the virus in bats and what’s out there now, (the scientific evidence) is very, very strongly leaning toward this could not have been artificially or deliberately manipulated, ” Fauci told the magazine, adding that he doesn’t believe that the virus somehow escaped a lab into society.
“… Everything about the stepwise evolution over time strongly indicates that (this virus) evolved in nature and then jumped species.”
The assessment follows repeated claims by Trump and Pompeo that there is evidence the virus originated at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
“I can tell you that there is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan,” Pompeo told ABC News on Sunday.
The US intelligence community issued a statement on Thursday saying it is still working to “determine whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.” The statement said that the Covid-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the State Department did not respond to CNN’s requests for comment.
A senior Office of Director of National Intelligence official said Monday night that the US has evidence for both theories.
“We regularly share intelligence with our partners on a variety of threats and Covid is no different,” the senior official told CNN. “The IC stands by the statement that the ODNI released last Thursday and we underscore three points: the IC believes the virus started in China. We’re down to two theories and have evidence on both. We agree that it does not appear to have been purposeful.”
Earlier Monday, a nationalist tabloid controlled by the Chinese Communist Party dismissed claims by the Trump administration that the novel coronavirus originated from a laboratory, as the war of words over the pandemic escalates between Washington and Beijing.
Responding to Pompeo’s comments that there was “enormous evidence” to support the theory, China’s state-owned Global Times newspaper said in an editorial that the former CIA director had “stunned the world with groundless accusations.”
“Since Pompeo said his claims are supported by ‘enormous evidence,’ then he should present this so-called evidence to the world, and especially to the American public who he continually tries to fool,” the editorial said.
“The truth is that Pompeo does not have any evidence, and during Sunday’s interview, he was bluffing.”
CNN reached out to China’s Foreign Ministry for comment on Pompeo’s claims, but has not received a response. The country is in the middle of a five-day holiday that runs through Tuesday.
Scientists around the world have condemned conspiracy theories suggesting that the coronavirus does not have a natural origin, pointing to studies that suggest it originated in wildlife.
China has faced criticism at home and abroad over its handling of the virus, especially during the initial outbreak. It was accused of silencing whistleblowers and delaying informing the public about the severity of the crisis.
But critics allege the Trump administration has ramped up efforts to blame China for the global spread of the virus as it faces growing criticism at home for its own handling of the pandemic. To date, the US has recorded more than 1.1 million cases and at least 68,000 deaths related to Covid-19.
This story has been updated with developments from China earlier Monday, plus background and context.

‘It’s unfathomable’: Reopening of China’s wet markets bewilders Scott Morrison as PM doubles down on his criticism of the World Health Organisation

  • Australia’s Prime Minister repeated criticism of the World Health Organisation 
  • Scott Morrison said on Tuesday he found the WHO’s stance ‘unfathomable’ 
  • WHO said China ‘wet markets’, the suspected source of COVID-19, could reopen 
  • Learn more about how to help people impacted by COVID

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has stepped up his criticism of the World Health Organisation following its support for the reopening of China‘s ‘wet markets’ after one in Wuhan was widely identified as the source of the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘It’s unfathomable, frankly,’ Mr Morrison told the Today show on Tuesday when asked about the WHO’s decision.

‘We need to protect the world against potential sources of these types of outbreaks. IT’s happened too many times,’ he said.

‘We don’t have them in Australia. I’m just puzzled by that decision.’

Australia's leaders have repeated criticism of the World Health Organisation after it supported reopening China's wet markets (pictured)

Australia’s leaders have repeated criticism of the World Health Organisation after it supported reopening China’s wet markets (pictured)

'We need to protect the world against potential sources of outbreaks of these types of viruses. It's happened too many times,' Mr Morrison said

‘We need to protect the world against potential sources of outbreaks of these types of viruses. It’s happened too many times,’ Mr Morrison said

Last week the United Nations health authority claimed the Chinese markets could be made to sell safe products with increased hygiene practices as they provided important sources of food and income.

The WHO has been under attack for its handling of the worldwide coronavirus crisis and has been accused of a pro-China bias.

Questions have been raised about its advice early in the crisis, most critically in allowing international travel from China to remain open, thus spreading the disease across the world.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom had praised China for its ‘transparency’ and handling of the outbreak after travelling to the country in January.

People wearing protective face masks shop at a chicken stall at a 'wet market' in Shanghai on February 13, 2020

People wearing protective face masks shop at a chicken stall at a ‘wet market’ in Shanghai on February 13, 2020

According to Johns Hopkins University at least 1,919,000 people have been infected and there have been at least 119,000 deaths from COVID-19 across the globe while at least 458,000 people have recovered.

In Australia, politicians from both sides of parliament have condemned the WHO’s stance and called for strict international regulations.

‘Australia and the world will be looking to organisations like the WHO to ensure lessons are learned from the devastating coronavirus outbreak,’ Mr Morrison said on Monday.

‘There must be transparency in understanding how it began in Wuhan and how it was transmitted. We also need to fully understand and protect against the global health threat posed by places like wet markets.’ Mr Morrison told The Australian.

The virus is understood to have originated from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan.

The Chinese ‘wet markets’ are notorious for keeping wild animals in inhumane cages, with the animals then slaughtered at the market.

One theory is that the disease was transferred to humans from bats, or possibly through another animal such as a pangolin, which are highly trafficked.

Both sides of parliament have been critical of the WHO with Labor MP Peter Khalil saying ‘wet markets’ must be shut down unless they can be proven to be safe.

Signs for various beef, pork and poultry products are displayed at stalls as chest refrigerators stand at the Baishazhou wet market in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, on Monday, April 6, 2020

Signs for various beef, pork and poultry products are displayed at stalls as chest refrigerators stand at the Baishazhou wet market in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, on Monday, April 6, 2020

‘Unless they can demonstrate that the regulations, the health and safety measures, are so strict that they can completely cut off the risk factors, they’re going to have to shut them down,’ he said.

‘It’s happened with SARS. It’s happened with avian influenza. It’s happened with COVID-19. Next time it might be an even worse virus.’

The SARS virus, which is very similar to COVID-19, is understood to have also originated in China, however, the virus was contained in 2003 with a comparatively small infection rate.

People wearing face masks in a wet market as residents in Mei Foo district in China on February 2 2020

People wearing face masks in a wet market as residents in Mei Foo district in China on February 2 2020

World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands in Beijing on Jan. 28, 2020, ahead of their meeting to discuss how to curb the spread of a new pneumonia-causing coronavirus

World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands in Beijing on Jan. 28, 2020, ahead of their meeting to discuss how to curb the spread of a new pneumonia-causing coronavirus

Liberal MP Andrew Hastie previoulsy told Daily Mail Australia the WHO had not been proactive enough in acting to stop the global health threat.

He said organisations like the WHO need to act quickly to ensure an outbreak like this does not happen again.

‘The WHO has been glacially slow in its decision-making,’ Mr Hastie said.

‘When Beijing shut down travel from Hubei to the rest of China on January 23 – but strangely not from Hubei to the rest of the world – why didn’t the WHO act decisively then?

‘It could’ve prevented the mass global exportation of COVID-19 then by declaring a pandemic and alerting governments around the world of the danger ahead.

‘Closing borders then could’ve saved lives and a lot of economic hardship.’

Why is the WHO director-general ‘sympathetic’ to China?

At the end of Janaury, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom enjoyed a trip to China to rub shoulders with President Xi Jinping.

When he returned, he hailed China for ‘transparency’ – even though it had covered up the extent of the outbreak by detaining doctors who sought to alert citizens.

Australian professor John Mackenzie, a member of the World Health Organization’s emergency committee, called China ‘reprehensible’ – but Dr Adhanom said China should be ‘congratulated’ for protecting ‘the people of the world’.

He then fawned over the communist leader, telling aides he was ‘very impressed and encouraged by the president’s detailed knowledge of the outbreak.’

Since then, Tedros Adhanom has been called a ‘China apologist’ by various commentators.

Kristine Lee, China analyst at an influential US think-tank said: ‘There is a clear narrative coming out of the WHO that panders to Xi Jinping’s view about his country’s handling of coronavirus.’

But why? Perhaps it goes back to his time as a top Ethiopian politician, wrote journalist Ian Birrell.

He served in senior roles under Meles Zenawi, who ran a brutal dictatorship with close ties to Beijing, which admired the regime’s authoritarian model of development.

Intriguingly, Tedros was accused of covering up three outbreaks of cholera during his seven years as health minister, although the claims were dismissed as dirty tactics to try to derail his bid to become the WHO boss.

Shortly after starting his new job with the WHO in 2017, he appointed Robert Mugabe as a ‘goodwill ambassador’, only to back down after furious protests from human rights groups pointing out the despot had devastated Zimbabwe’s health service while wrecking his nation.

Mugabe, as head of the African Union and a close ally of China, had helped him win the WHO post. Beijing also used its financial muscle to build support among developing nations, with Xi said to see the achievement as a sign of China’s growing strength.

While the world reels from coronavirus, the next pandemic is waiting in the wings

Stop The Wildlife Trade: Zoonotic diseases represent a real and present threat to the modern world – after failing to address the danger for centuries, we must act now

Poached in Africa, pangolin meat is consumed by hunters and the scales are destined for the Chinese pharmacopoeia market

Poached in Africa, pangolin meat is consumed by hunters and the scales are destined for the Chinese pharmacopoeia market ( Reuters )

The mountains are high and the emperor is far away, goes the Chinese proverb. Over the years, the chorus of warnings on the wildlife trade and sale of live animals has steadily grown louder.

For too long, governments across the world have made overtures to curb this crisis of animal rights, but they have turned a blind eye to the continued growth of the industry in their own backyards. The threat to public health has been known to us for centuries, even since the Black Death.

But it is not going away. Rather it is becoming a more serious and sustained threat to the modern world. Indeed, zoonotic diseases are responsible for 2.5 billion cases of human illness and 2.7 million deaths every year around the world. As human civilisation expands into more animal habitats, and the exploitation of the natural world continues, these infectious diseases are likely to become ever more common.

Researchers and experts have been warning of the threat of zoonotic viruses from Asia’s wildlife trade for some time. One academic paper from 2017 warns that the rise of China, a “cradle” of such diseases since the Black Death, would almost certainly herald a new wave.

Income growth means more Chinese consumers can afford the rare meats seen as “luxury”, fuelling the demand that leads to smuggling, corruption and illegal markets. Urbanisation increases the risk of a disease becoming an epidemic. And globalisation brings China closer to the world. Just as the bubonic plague bacteria spread across the ancient silk roads to reach Europe, the coronavirus was carried from Wuhan across the globe in Boeing 747s and cruise liners.

While huge swathes of the rest of the world pull down the shutters on shops, businesses and markets, and impose lockdowns to halt the terrifying spread of the disease, there are markets in filthy conditions across China and southeast Asia selling live animals. The general trend is that territories further from Beijing and the east coast have more flagrant abuses.

China’s growing international clout also threatens to ramp up the illegal wildlife trade. While it has traditionally relied upon its close neighbours, Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos, for certain animals such as pangolins and dogs, its global ambitions could change this.

Its Belt and Road Initiative, a massive state-backed programme of investment across 60 countries to stimulate growth and trade and cement influence, might ease the illegal wildlife trade and put habitats of rare species like Asian brown bears and Persian leopards within reach, according to an article in one nature journal.

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The WHO and governments globally are facing pleas to halt the sale of animals in unhygienic conditions

China has taken steps to control the wildlife trade. In February, it instituted a temporary ban on selling and eating wild animals, and authorities moved to close markets across the country. At the beginning of this month, the Ministry of Agriculture hinted that the dog meat trade could be outlawed.

Jill Robinson, the founder of an organisation that runs animal sanctuaries in China and Vietnam for trafficked bears, warned me that we need a sea change in our attitude towards animals and the cultural practices surrounding their treatment.

“Markets have unsanitary conditions, and vast amounts of antibiotics are being used simply to keep the animals alive. This latest outbreak calls for great change globally and no country is immune. Governments must now take the decision to make massive and sweeping change or risk the next deadly virus that is waiting in the wings.”