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Traded wild animals carry 75 per cent of diseases humans can catch

A Javan slow loris at an illegal animal market in Jakarta, Indonesia

Reynold Sumayku/Alamy

Bats, primates and other mammals sold in the wildlife trade play host to three quarters of infectious diseases capable of spilling over from animals to humans. Just a quarter of traded species carry these zoonotic viruses.

Conservationists say the findings, part of the first detailed, global look at pathogens in traded mammals, highlight ways to target high-risk traded species to reduce the chance of future pandemics. The World Health Organization considers a wildlife market in Huanan, China, to be one possible origin of covid-19.

Most previous research in this area has assessed disease risk by looking at the frequency with which animals are being traded. Instead, researchers in the US and India took an existing data set on mammals that are reservoirs for known zoonotic viruses, supplemented it with scientific literature and then married it with a database on whether animals are in the wildlife trade or not.

They found that 26.5 per cent of traded mammals carry 75 per cent of known zoonotic viruses. By comparison, domesticated mammals play host to 51.7 per cent of known zoonotic viruses and non-traded ones carry 64.2 per cent. The biggest disease risk among traded species was from primates, bats, carnivores and hoofed animals known as ungulates.

“I think the outcome is fairly alarming,” says team member Joseph Kiesecker at The Nature Conservancy, a US non-profit. The analysis suggests marsupials will join the high-risk list in the future, based on which animals are traded today and predictions of how they are expected to decline and how they may be substituted with other animals in future.

The results don’t necessarily mean an outright ban on the wildlife trade is possible or even desirable, given that this may drive the market underground and deprive people who rely on it for food of an important source of protein, says Kiesecker. “What it shows, though, is that viruses are not equally distributed across all critters, so we can target those species that are known to carry more viruses,” he says. “You can be finer scale on how you focus restrictions.”

One caveat is a possible bias in sampling. More individuals per species are tested for disease in traded and domesticated mammals, compared with non-traded mammals.

“We need to learn whether these species can actually transmit the viruses with which they’re infected, and we need to get better at finding the original source hosts,” says Felicia Keesing at Bard College in New York, who wasn’t involved in the research. “It’s quite possible that many of these hosts were accidentally infected by contact with people.”

Journal reference: Current Biology, DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2021.06.006

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