Conservation and Biodiversity

What you need to know about Coronavirus

As the COVID-19 Coronavirus spreads across the planet, information — and speculation — about its causes, treatments and risks spread with it.

With talks of a global pandemic bringing pain, death and tragedy to thousands and potentially millions worldwide, it’s human nature to attempt to contain the seemingly uncontainable through information and action. But one of the most dangerous things we can do right now, as so much remains to be understood, is to speculate.

Instead, let’s break down what we do know: What this virus is, why its emergence is important, what we can learn from it and how it relates to our species.

What is Coronavirus?

Coronavirus is a bit of a misnomer, as the word actually refers to a family of viruses that originate in wildlife and transfer to humans. These diseases, bacteria and viruses that make the jump from animals to humans are collectively called zoonotic diseases.

This new strain, referred to as COVID-19, belongs to the Coronavirus family and has been traced to somewhere in Wuhan, China (the exact source is still unknown). Like all zoonotic diseases, COVID-19 is believed to have originated in wildlife, most likely bats and transferred to another terrestrial species before finally infecting humans

People are mostly worried about COVID-19 because its mechanisms of infection are similar to a previously known strain of Coronavirus called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). The SARS Coronavirus spread across Asia in 2003, killing 774.  

Why is COVID-19’s emergence important?

COVID-19’s emergence is important for several reasons. The most obvious is that it has and will inevitably affect thousands in the coming weeks. The less obvious is its impact on wildlife regulation.

Given that this virus jumped from wildlife to humans, we may see changes in our relationship with animals in the wild. China has already approved a new draft decision that bans illegal wildlife trafficking and stiffens punishments for offenders. The decision also bans eating any ecologically important wildlife, in addition to trading any wildlife not considered livestock or poultry. 

This week’s move by the Chinese government is a significant one and sets a new standard for how wildlife trade is regulated across the world’s most populous nation, home to nearly 1.4 billion people. 

What can we learn from this outbreak?

One thing for us to remember is that if humans continue to enter wild habitats, we will continue exposing ourselves to novel and potentially devastating pathogens. 

For wildlife trafficking, this means we must collectively end illegal wildlife trade and pass stricter policies to ensure legal trade is regulated.

In addition to wildlife trafficking, we must also consider the role of climate change and its influence on our interactions with wild communities. As climate change progresses, various organisms will undergo changes to their natural range and correspondingly, so will the ranges of the diseases that those organisms carry.

Ultimately, whether it’s wildlife trade or growing global warming, human activity has upset the balance of nature. As we now see through increased extreme weather events and the spread of vector-borne and zoonotic diseases, our actions can and do push nature to the breaking point, with devastating impacts on human health and life.

Coronavirus is a harrowing and intimidating global health crisis that underlines a clear message for the future: We must be more vigilant in how we interact with wildlife and prepare for the altered interactions that growing climate change will inevitably bring.  

Photo credit for image at top: PAHO/WHO