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Back to the Future

If we have learnt anything over the last 6 weeks it has been the social and economic impact on a nation in lockdown; trying to manage a dangerous pandemic that has affected all our lives, in ways unimaginable only a few weeks ago.

To understand the situation today and what tomorrow might hold, we need to visit the past. What brought about circumstances that unleashed such a devastating virus, causing severe restrictions to our liberty, and who has ever heard of a Pangolin?

Scientists acknowledge the coronavirus ‘jumped’ species, from animal to humans, and its origin was probably a ‘wet-meat’ and wildlife market. What exactly is a ‘wet-meat’ and wildlife market and how could it be possible for a virus to transfer from one species to another? Now I’m no epidemiologist or virologist, but I can appreciate how viruses and diseases might spread and contaminate in conditions other than best practiced hygiene. I remember being shocked at ‘wet-meat’ and wildlife markets from earlier visits to China; huge diversity of animals, freshly slaughtered (warm) pigs being dismembered, in unhygienic locations, alongside poultry, both dead and live caged, guts thrown on the floor, truly shocking. These markets can also have a brisk trade in endangered and poached animals, driving the extinction of species (and I include mankind) for no other reason other than to facilitate ‘remedies’ for spurious medical practices. The markets are well-known breeding grounds for diseases that can be deadly to humans, as we have experienced in the past with H5N1 Avian Flu, SARS and now Covid-19. There is no excuse for the existence of these markets that conceal infectious viruses, that can spread like wild-fires in a globally connected world, it’s time to abolish the repugnant trade now and forever.

The outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan, China, casts a harsh light on the wildlife markets present throughout Asia. Although genetic analysis has come up short of pinpointing the culprit so far, among the prime suspects is the pangolin, a long-snouted, scaly, ant-eating mammal virtually unknown in the Western World. Elusive and enigmatic, the pangolin has existed for 85 million years, and are the most heavily trafficked and illegally traded mammals in the world today. In the wild, they are known to scoop up ants and termites with their long sticky tongues, and to curl up into a protective ball when threatened; behaviour which aides human hunters eager to profit from the multi-million pound trade in the creatures.

They are poached for their meat, which is eaten as a delicacy in Vietnam and China, and their scales, which are used in traditional Asian medicines. The medicinal virtues are purported to include treatments to aid breast-feeding, relieve skin disease, rheumatism and asthma, none of which are supported by science. It has been estimated that more than a million pangolins have been snatched from the wild over the past decade and the extreme demand has put the species in the unenviable position of being “critically endangered”. If we don’t stop the illegal wildlife trade, pangolins face a real risk of going extinct.

Singapore has recently seen the largest ever seizure of trafficked pangolin scales after a shipment carrying 12.7 tonnes of the illegal animal parts was intercepted while travelling between Nigeria and Vietnam. The haul which set the grim record was worth an estimated £29.5 million and labelled as “frozen beef”. Roughly 36,000 pangolins are believed to have been killed for the single shipment in the 40-foot container, according to Paul Thomson, an official with the Pangolin Specialist Group, an organisation that belongs to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. ‘The news of this record-shattering seizure is deeply alarming and underscores the fact that pangolins are facing a crisis’, he told the New York Times.

Ironically from the 15th – 28th October 2020, China will host the UN Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, where representatives of nearly 200 countries will attended. So now, with the knowledge that pangolins host various strains of coronaviruses, that probably infected humans with Covid-19, will these delegates take a hard-line stance and demand an immediate end to all ‘wet-meat’ and wildlife markets world-wide? Only by such a united-front can mankind be saved from similar pandemics in the future and the Pangolin spared from extinction.

We have all been on a difficult journey, guided along the way by many inspirational and courageous people, working to defeat Covid-19, and defeat it we will. It may not be tomorrow so please bear-in-mind, no matter how long the road ahead it will lead to a beautiful destination and hopefully a much brighter future.

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