COVID-19: The latest zoonotic disease stemming from the meat industry


COVID-19: The latest zoonotic disease stemming from the meat industry

11 May 2020
Although the exact origin story of the COVID-19 outbreak is still uncertain, it is highly likely that the virus began as a zoonotic disease.

A dominant theory is that the new coronavirus was initially a disease affecting bats, before transiting to humans, possibly via an intermediary species such as the pangolin. Given the location of the initial outbreak, it is likely that the virus made the jump to humans at a wet market in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where wild animals including bats and pangolins are traded illegally. The biology of COVID-19 and the technologies used for diagnosis are explored in the recent IDTechEx report, "COVID-19 Diagnostics".

This is not the first time that live animal wet markets have been linked with zoonotic diseases. A 2004 Lancet paper linked wet markets with several disease outbreaks, including the SARS outbreak in China and the H5N1 bird flu virus that transmitted to and killed 6 of 18 people in Hong Kong in 1997.

The problem of wet markets and zoonoses is just part of the wider issue of zoonotic disease outbreaks linked with the global meat industry. Any system involving an extremely high density of animals in contact with human will lead to risks of disease transmission. This is particularly problematic in intensive animal farming systems, where there is often very little genetic diversity between animals, meaning a disease can rapidly spread without meeting any resistance from genetic variants.

A prominent example of this is influenza, a disease with a high potential to cause pandemics. There is a clear link between the emergence of avian influenza viruses and intensified poultry production systems. A 2018 research article reviewed 39 historical "conversion events", the conversion of a low pathogenic into a highly pathogenic avian flu virus, finding that all but two of them were reported in commercial poultry systems, with most taking place in high-income countries.

Unfortunately, in the coming years, zoonotic disease outbreaks are likely to become increasingly common. This will stem from animal agriculture intensifying as the world struggles to feed its burgeoning population and growing wealth in low income countries leads to increasing demand for meat.

So, what is the solution? Although a significant reduction in global meat demand would probably be extremely helpful in stemming the tide of zoonotic disease outbreaks, it may be difficult to achieve. Meat is involved in many cultural and religious practices and eating meat is an important part of many peoples' identities, acting as a symbol of food security and societal value around the world. As such, there is a large opportunity for any company that can create a completely realistic substitute for meat products.