The Covid-19 outbreak is believed to have originated in a seafood market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where it is thought stallholders were infected during contact with animals on sale.
Previous epidemics have also begun with animal-to-human transmission, including severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), which infected more than 8,000 people between 2002 and 2003.
Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, acting executive secretary of the UN's biological diversity department, has said banning markets where live animals are sold for human consumption could prevent new pandemic diseases from spreading. However, she said such restrictions should only be imposed in the right conditions.
“The message we are getting is if we don’t take care of nature, it will take care of us,” Ms Mrema told The Guardian.
“It would be good to ban the live animal markets as China has done and some countries. But we should also remember you have communities, particularly from low-income rural areas, particularly in Africa, which are dependent on wild animals to sustain the livelihoods of millions of people,” she said.
“Unless we get alternatives for these communities, there might be a danger of opening up illegal trade in wild animals which currently is already leading us to the brink of extinction for some species.”
China temporarily banned people from eating and trading wildlife for food earlier this year as the country worked to combat the spread of coronavirus.
Humane Society International, an animal charity, has called for this ban to become a permanent fixture across the globe.
“The capture and consumption of wild animals is a global trade that causes immense suffering for hundreds of thousands of animals every year, including endangered wildlife species being traded to the brink of extinction,” said president Jeffrey Flocken.
“The trade can also spawn global health crises like the current coronavirus, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome and the deadly bird flu.
“Wildlife markets across the globe, but particularly in Asia and Africa, are widespread and could easily be the start of disease outbreaks in the future.”
Environmental experts have warned current practices with natural habitats and wildlife can set off outbreaks of infectious diseases in humans.
Dr Samuel Myers, principle research scientist at Harvard’s Department of Environmental Health, told The Independent last month: “Other animals are an enormous reservoir of pathogens, many of which we haven’t yet been exposed to.”
He said the live markets in Wuhan had “ an extraordinary number of exotic species alive in cages, all in proximity to each other and to humans in a way that you would never find in the natural world”.
Dr Myers, who is director of the Planetary Health Alliance, added: “Once a pathogen has made that jump from animals to humans, it has the capacity to spread around the globe very quickly with air travel.”
More than 1,250,000 people have now been infected with the new coronavirus across the world, with the worldwide death toll topping 69,000.
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