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Is the coronavirus pandemic related to meat production?

"...the big task at hand is to reduce the amount of suffering all over the world from this particular disease that left Pandora’s box and can’t get back in."

-Rick Ostfeld

As the novel coronavirus has rocketed around the world, carrying with it immeasurable suffering, it has, at the same time, spawned a cottage industry of myths, misperceptions, speculation, and on occasion, downright lies. And as the pandemic persists, some of that disinformation centers on connections to food production—especially meat.

While this pandemic does have tangential connections to the way meat is produced and consumed across the globe, focusing the conversation too narrowly on whether or not humans should eat meat—or even on the perils of industrial meat production writ large—ignores bigger, more nuanced issues. Other critical factors include food insecurity in the developing world and urbanized Asia; the industrialization of agriculture, including plant crops like corn and soy; the illicit, lucrative trade in wild animals; habitat destruction; the loss of biodiversity; and climate change.

These large, systemic issues may seem intractable when we look at them through the lens of a public health crisis that has much of the globe on lockdown. But understanding the role food production plays in the increasing likelihood of future pandemics can also provide insights into how we might begin to solve them.

I spoke with a group of scientists to help us clarify the relationship between meat production and consumption and the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic specifically, the rise of zoonotic pathogens, and how we can enter the future better armed to prevent and manage outbreaks.

The Experts

  • Dr. Richard Ostfeld, disease ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York.
  • Dr. Benjamin Chapman, extension food safety specialist and associate professor at North Carolina State University.
  • Dr. Lance Price, professor at the George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health and founding director of GW’s Antibiotic Resistance Action Center.
  • Josh Berson, independent social scientist who has held research appointments at the Berggruen Institute and the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences. He’s also the author of the 2019 book, The Meat Question: Animals, Humans, and the Deep History of Food.
  • Professor Andrew Cunningham, deputy director of science at ZSL (Zoological Society of London). In lieu of a phone interview, we were referred to his comments from the March 15 episode of “The Food Programme”, a BBC podcast.

Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Where did Covid-19 come from?

Noble: What do we know about the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 in relation to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan (the capital city of Central China’s Hubei province) where the coronavirus outbreak was first reported? Does this virus have any connection to the production or consumption of meat from that market?

Ostfeld: One important thing for people to know is that we don’t know exactly where this novel coronavirus came from. It is truly novel, which means that it has never been found in any other organism besides human beings. In terms of its genetic similarity, based on its genotype, it’s most closely related to a coronavirus from bats. But it is not identical. It’s not even that close to identical. I’ve read of different genetic similarities between 85 percent and a bit over 90 percent—so roughly as closely related as we humans are to cows. It is also fairly closely related to a coronavirus found in pangolins, an anteater type of animal, and also in a type of snake.

I consider it still a hypothesis, although there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence, that it came from the wet market in Wuhan. That’s where the big cluster of cases was initially, so it seems to be traced to there. This is almost certainly a zoonotic coronavirus, meaning it came from some nonhuman vertebrate. These animals shed virus in their feces and urine, so their excretions probably contained the virus and that’s how it got initially into that one—likely one—human. After that, it’s highly transmissible between humans, and that’s what makes this such a dangerous pandemic. Meat does play a role, because these animals are housed alive in very crowded conditions; there are lots of different species that never occur together in nature. And many of them are illegally caught.

We don’t know exactly where this novel coronavirus came from.

Cunningham: These massive live animal markets didn’t really exist before or during the Cultural Revolution. It’s a 1980s onwards phenomenon. And particularly the last decade or so, wild animals are being collected from many other parts of the world. So, we’re seeing species mixing under unnatural conditions that would not normally mix in nature.

Not only are humans congregating in large numbers around these animals, but the animals are often slaughtered in the market when they’re bought because people like, they call it, warm meat, they want a fresh product, and so people are exposed to blood and other bodily fluids of these animals in the market and when they get home and butcher them.

Berson: There’s a lot of talk about how the how pangolins might have been the intermediate vector between bats and humans in the Wuhan seafood market. It’s not proven. Coming from the report I’ve read of the Chinese sequencing of the original two Covid strains, the longest common RNA subsequence in the pangolin analog is much weaker than that in the in the bat analog. So, it seems pretty clear that the initial reservoir was in bats, but what the pathway to humans was—is—a bit unclear.

This is a virus pandemic that originated with a with a zoonotic crossover. It’s something that epidemiologists have been waiting for since before the 2002 SARS outbreak. You could have known this was coming without having had the experience.

Chapman: Truthfully, I don’t think we’ll ever really know. We have lots of genetic theories, and having a smoking gun is something we all want, but often never happens.

Question: What role did the international trade in wild animals play in the initial outbreak?

Berson: There are two things to consider. On the one hand, there’s the fact that to a certain degree, the demand for exotica of all kinds, including bushmeat and pangolin scales, an aphrodisiac, is pretty great. It’s a phenomenon of an emerging bourgeoisie mindset in China. On the other hand, in China and elsewhere, there’s a much wider range of protein strategies than we’re accustomed to thinking about. So, there are two ways in which you might see a proliferation of animal source proteins in the areas undergoing urbanization. One is catering to emerging markets for exotica. The other is catering to the needs of relatively recently arrived migrants to the major cities who, one way or another, need to meet their protein needs.

This is a virus pandemic that originated with a with a zoonotic crossover.

Cunningham: There are geographical barriers; there are ecological barriers; and they’re just being smashed by the supply chain of wild animals. And human beings certainly are interacting more with bats, both directly and indirectly, than we have done in our history. Part of that is because we’re running out of wild animals to eat. And so, people are hunting bats far more than they ever used to.

And another reason is because of encroachment into bat habitat. A very good example of this is the industrialization of pig farms in Malaysia in the 1990s, which encroached into bat habitat, and the planting of fruit trees, orchards, in close proximity to the pig farms. The bats would come in and eat the fruit from the fruit orchards, they would drop contaminated fruit into the pig pens, and [it would] be eaten by the pigs. This is how a virus called Nipah virus transferred from bats into pigs. And it led to pretty much the eradication of the Malaysian pig industry and the deaths of over 100 people.

Price: With bushmeat, there’s a huge risk, especially when you’re hunting non-human primates. That’s where there’s going to be another likely Ebola-type pandemic.

Does antibiotic resistance play any role in this pandemic?

Ostfeld: There are conditions in animal husbandry that certainly benefit pathogens. But it’s often how we do it, as opposed to the fact that we raise animals at all. We use tremendous quantities of antibiotics on animals that are not ill. It’s not a therapeutic use; it’s prophylactic, and it increases yield, so it’s economically viable because antibiotics are cheap. To be honest, antibiotic resistant bacteria are globally perhaps the most important source of disease emergence. When we grow livestock and poultry in very crowded conditions, we are providing an advantage for various microbes to transmit, and some of those, a small fraction of them, have the potential to jump to us and make us sick. So, there are ways in which we grow animals for food that can promote disease emergence; that part’s true. But within this pandemic, eating meat versus being a vegetarian doesn’t have much bearing.

Price: The only overlap [with Covid-19] is when it comes to secondary infections. A big bunch of people who get coronavirus are actually going to ultimately die of bacterial infections. And if those bacterial infections are resistant to antibiotics, then that could hasten their demise. And then there are also antifungals. We know that a lot of people in the ICU who have flu end up with aspergillus infections, and aspergillus is becoming resistant to the antifungals that are used in plant agriculture. So, it’s not even just animal production contributing to the problem anymore. We’re basically dealing with two mini-pandemics at the same time.

We don’t have any data, any evidence, any indication at all that it’s a foodborne illness or disease.

Have food safety practices played a role?

Chapman: When it comes to SARS-CoV-2 and CoVID-19, we don’t have any data, any evidence, any indication at all that it’s a foodborne illness or disease. That’s not to say that the virus could not be on food. That’s different. But food is not a risk factor for transmission.

The interaction of people and animals, that’s the issue, or that can be the issue, of jumping the species barrier. It’s not the only issue. That interaction can happen at a food spot, but it’s not a food safety issue. The reason we’ve closed dining rooms and restaurants is not because of the food; it’s because of the people.

There’s a keen awareness about the importance of investigating all the pathways that could lead to illness and putting in steps to reduce that risk. Every time we have a large outbreak, there are a lot of folks on the outside who want to start looking at food inspection. But in the food world, we do this every day. We’ve been looking at things like this to make sure there is a lot of infrastructure. There’s a lot of academic support. There’s a lot of scientific support to make sure that the food industry continues to work because it’s an essential thing. We don’t last very long without food.

The interaction of people and animals, that’s the issue. That interaction can happen at a food spot, but it’s not a food safety issue.

How are climate change and biodiversity loss related to the rise in zoonotic diseases?

Ostfeld: One of the less well-publicized environmental crises is the loss of biodiversity. We’re hearing a lot more about climate change these days, and deservedly so. But climate change and biodiversity loss are the two most important anthropogenic disturbances profoundly affecting life on our planet. And they actually interact because climate change causes biodiversity loss in the form of habitat destruction, like forests, which exacerbates climate change. They’re not completely separable.

In the case of biodiversity loss, you tend to lose certain species. If you convert native habitat into pastureland, strip malls, industrial complexes, suburbs or cities, you lose some species. And the species that you lose tend to be larger-bodied ones that need more space to maintain a viable population. They tend to be more carnivorous, so they’re higher on the food chain. You also lose rare species. That actually benefits the little, rapidly breeding generalists, like rats and mice.

It turns out that those small omnivorous generalist species tend to harbor more pathogens, and more dangerous pathogens, than the other species that disappear. And as a result, when you lose biodiversity, we’re left with the creatures that are shedding bacteria, viruses, and parasites more heavily than their counterparts. We’re losing the species that serve a protective role by either absorbing and killing off these pathogens, or actually killing the mice and rats.

Price: Candida auris, a drug-resistant fungus, appears to be related to climate change. It was originally living in plants, but adapting to climate change made it able to deal with the higher body temperatures of birds, which is about 41 degrees Celsius. You get the host jump there, and then it gets into industrial poultry production, and then into humans. [Candida auris is also spread in hospital settings, including in the ICU.]

What’s the outlook? Can we prevent the next pandemic?

Cunningham: Covid-19 is actually a bit of a warning shot. It’s only got about a 2-to-3 percent case fatality rate, which is a lot, about 10 times more than seasonal flu. But we’re talking about diseases around the world like Ebola, with a 50 percent case fatality rate, and Nipah with a 75-to-90 percent case fatality rate. So we really ought to use this as a warning to get our act together and to start funding the work that needs to be done in order to stop the next pandemic emergence.

Berson: The central government of China has announced a ban on the bushmeat trade. You can feel confident that they will enforce it. If they decide it’s over, it will be over. It will dramatically reduce the source of risk.

More and more consumers, certainly upwardly mobile consumers in China, even in the cities in the interior, would prefer to be getting their meat at the Tesco or the Metro rather than at the wet market.

When people ask if this is going to drive changes in consumer behavior, I’m not sure. Do people look at [it] and see a connection to their own behavior? The only thing that will lead to changing behavior is a practical consideration. That’s what I would say on a pessimistic day.

Covid-19 is a warning shot. We really ought to use this warning to get our act together and start funding the work that needs to be done in order to stop the next pandemic.

Ostfeld: Regulations about the illegal wildlife trade need to be better enforced. Moving wildlife around, creating these novel communities, is super risky, and the animal trade that occurs with pets and in the livestock industry, this also needs to be very carefully regulated. I do realize there are regulations on the books, but perhaps they need to be strengthened and enforced better.

Another thing we can regulate is how we impact the environment. Conservationists have been saying this for a long time, often with a focus on the intrinsic value of nature, of diversity, of natural areas, wilderness, etc. But there is also very pragmatic value, in that we can often reduce the likelihood of disease transmission if we avoid certain types of habitat destruction or alterations.

So those are two things. One, animal trade and trafficking, seems easier. The other, which is a broader environmental policy, seems harder. But those are two directions we could go to reduce the likelihood of this happening again. Obviously, right now the big task at hand is to reduce the amount of suffering all over the world from this particular disease that left Pandora’s box and can’t get back in.


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