WUHAN, China—Before its closure, the Huanan Seafood Market offered its patrons an edible zoo. Visitors could choose from a selection of over 75 species, often kept alive for slaughter on demand. A diverse array of animals, from giant salamanders to ostriches, awaited their turn under the knife as discerning customers examined them. It was as if Noah’s Ark were converted into a grocery store.
The Chinese government shut down this wild animal market in January after researchers identified it as a potential source of COVID-19. Last month, China took a more dramatic step, placing a permanent ban on wildlife consumption. Wild animals have long been vectors for disease, and by limiting their trade, China hopes to circumvent future pandemics. While this proactive measure is admirable, its narrow emphasis on wild animals obscures an uncomfortable reality. The primary cause of zoonotic diseases is not the consumption of wildlife—it’s the consumption of animals, period.
Despite what China’s new policy might lead the public to believe, many of the worst zoonotic diseases come from domesticated animals, not wild ones. Pathogens can jump the species barrier from almost any angle. Genetic analysis suggests that the deadliest flu outbreak in history, the 1918 Spanish flu, partially evolved inside poultry farms. The 2009 H1N1 virus originated in pigs and killed up to 575,400 people during its first year. Scientists are now worried that cattle, which have long been a source of anthrax, tuberculosis, and other diseases in humans, could soon give rise to deadly flu outbreaks. Pathogenic microbes show no concern for whether or not humans have labeled an animal “wild.”
The animal kingdom’s diseases, regardless of their origin, are an existential threat to humans. Three out of four emerging diseases in humans come from animals. Zoonotic diseases like coronavirus infect 2.5 billion people every year. Even during unexceptional years, these pathogens kill approximately 2.4 million individuals—more than gun violence, car crashes, and drug abuse, combined. In recent weeks, we’ve seen that outbreaks have the ability to make stocks plunge and panic soar. In the coming weeks, we may see these anxieties justified.
Diseases do not recognize borders. Our response as a species must mirror that reality. Governments and individuals alike have a responsibility to take the actions within their control to prevent these catastrophes. Though China’s markets have come under global scrutiny, Americans’ demand for meat may be even riskier. The average American consumes almost twice as much meat as the average Chinese person. The sheer scale of American meat consumption significantly raises the odds of a pandemic. The more animals we keep, the more likely diseases like COVID-19 become. In the United States, we keep nearly 10 billion animals on a mere two million farms. As you might guess by the size of the numerator, these animals are mostly living in cramped conditions ideal for disease transmission.
Worse, we pump farmed animals with antibiotics to hasten their growth, setting the stage for antimicrobial-resistant superbugs to play a tragic role in humanity’s future. Experts appointed by the U.K. government estimate that superbugs will be a leading cause of death globally by 2050, ending 10 million lives annually. Though overprescription of antibiotics is an issue, the majority of American antibiotics are used not in hospitals, but on farms. Americans administer 70 percent of our antibiotics to healthy farm animals, rather than sick people. Over 100 separate studies link animal antibiotic consumption with antibiotic resistance. In the U.S., we are farming superbugs in our farm animals. Not only could our system create new pandemics, but it could also reboot old ones by granting them immunity to conventional treatments.
Inconvenient truths are so common to our era that we may well be inoculated to them. Regardless, here’s another: Every time we buy animal products, we directly sponsor a system that will continue to produce pandemics, and will ultimately render ineffective our existing antibiotics. Coronavirus—which is, fittingly, an anagram for “carnivorous”—should remind us to consume foods more thoughtfully. Our food choices need not personally contribute to the risk of a public health crisis. Perhaps it’s time we take pandemics off our plates.
Macken Murphy is a bimonthly columnist for Tenderly magazine, and the host of Species podcast.