Coronavirus and zoonotic diseases: why we need to change

by Matt Richardson |

With our daily routines fragmented by social distancing guidelines, the Novel Coronavirus pandemic has seen a lot of us spending time reflecting on the way we live, and immersing ourselves in new information to better improve ourselves and society. This situation has made one thing clear: measures need to be taken to mitigate another event like this. But how can we help the cause from home?

To prevent future pandemics, we must first consider how the current one began. The new coronavirus arose out of the city of Wuhan in China, first reported when a man was exposed to a live animal market selling all types of meats, including that belonging to wild animals such as bats and pangolins. The data is so far consistent that this disease was transmitted from non-human animals to humans, and it can therefore be regarded as zoonotic. 

“But how can we help the cause from home?” | Hao Rui/Unsplash

Could it then be assumed that it was the presence of exotic animal meats, regarded as delicacies for food and medicine in Chinese culture, that caused this pandemic? So, to avoid another outbreak, people just need to stop buying bats and pangolins, right? Perhaps this is the case.

It’s important to note that this isn’t the first outbreak of a zoonotic disease; in fact there have been many others around the world. One of the preceding coronavirus strains, the SARS-CoV virus, caused the first large-scale epidemic of the 21st century, infecting more than 8,000 people and leading to nearly 800 deaths. The early cases of this virus were also linked to live animal ‘wet markets’ in China and there is also evidence to suggest that the SADS-CoV strain of 2016 may have been caused by livestock animals.

We cannot go back to “business as usual” and expect this to never happen again unless we change

Additionally, some of the most significant outbreaks of the past originated from similar conditions; the HIV virus is theorised to have started by humans eating chimpanzee meat, the Ebola virus has been traced back to the consumption of bats and BSE (‘mad cow disease’) was transmitted to humans in the UK from cattle. It has also been stated that the Spanish flu of 1918 likely originated from a chicken farm in Kansas, operating under conditions that would be considered free-range, and a related H1N1 strain that reached pandemic levels in 2009 in the United States of America and Mexico likely had its origins from the pig populations of both countries. What all these events have in common is a link to the exploitation of non-human animals used for food, which is not just restricted to exotic species.

“It’s likely that this is not the last time this will happen” | Katarina G/Unsplash

The CDC (Centres for Disease Prevention) warns that 3 out of every 4 new or emerging infectious diseases in humans come from animals, and WHO (World Health Organisation), the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations) and the OIE (World Organisation for Animal Health) have previously stated that the increasing demand for animal protein is one of the main risk factors in the emergence and spread of zoonotic diseases.

These live markets are just a storefront of the large-scale animal farming industry that provides many of the products that we buy at the supermarket. Behind closed doors, they harbour even worse conditions – providing an optimal environment for germs to grow and transmit between hosts. Some zoonotic diseases we can do very little to stop or avoid, such as those transmitted through insect bites from mosquitos or ticks, but many we can avoid by changes in the way we treat animals. It makes sense that if we weren’t using animals for food, we wouldn’t create situations where many of these diseases, including the latest coronavirus, pass to humans.

This also begs the question: what’s the difference between eating bats and eating pigs or chickens if all three are capable of zoonotic diseases? And by logic, how can we claim that including animals in our diets is a lifestyle choice, when doing so not only takes the lives of trillions of non-human animals, but risks the lives of the people around us by increasing the likelihood of future pandemics?

“3 out of every 4 new or emerging infectious diseases in humans come from animals” | Will Kirk/Unsplash

It’s likely that this is not the last time this will happen – it is merely a question of when. We cannot go back to “business as usual” and expect this to never happen again unless we change.

So, what now?

Well, as consumers ourselves, if we’re going to reduce the demand for animal protein, thereby lowering the need for dense host environments and diminishing exposure for humans (e.g. slaughterhouse workers) to contaminated animal flesh, we need to change our eating habits. The easiest way of doing this is to make some simple switches towards plant-based alternatives in the supermarket.

Instead of chicken, try tofu or some meat alternatives! Instead of mince, give Quorn or soya mince a go! Dairy is an easy switch: there are lots of different plant-based milk alternatives, as well as cheese, yogurts, and ice cream. You just have to find what you like; no two alternatives are the same – use this as an opportunity to try new things and get creative in the kitchen! Once you get started, you’ll realise that there’s an alternative to everything and you never have to miss out… Here’s an omelette recipe that comes well recommended:

“We need to change our eating habits” | Nadine Primeau/Unsplash

Last but by no means least, there are many caterers in Falmouth with amazing plant-based options! Here are some of my personal favourites:

  • Yard Woodfired Pizza (Bohls Yard, Penryn) – they also do delicious ice creams!
  • Brothers Pizza (The Moor, Falmouth)
  • Harbour Lights (Falmouth)
  • Mariners Fish and Chips (Market Street, Penryn)
  • Boo-Koo’s (The Moor, Falmouth)

There’s definitely a lot of change needed to prevent something like this from happening again, but if everyone does a little bit and contributes their part, we’ll be one step closer to a safer environment and better standards of living. 

This article is in our Opinions section. As such the views within are those of the contributor and do not represent an editorial stance. The Falmouth Anchor is committed to full independence and impartiality in its coverage of any issue.

The views expressed in this publication are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Falmouth University, the University of Exeter or Falmouth & Exeter Students’ Union.