The evidence is pointing towards a rather clear source of the new coronavirus that is presently causing a global stir: a seafood market in Wuhan where wild animals were sold.

The latest news from laboratories looking into the virus suggests that it may have originated from bats, and was passed on to another animal, such as a snake, which then infected humans.

It is important to note that this particular coronavirus is a novel one – novel in the sense that it was unknown before the outbreak. However, that doesn’t mean that the virus is completely new.

Rather, it may have existed in bats for quite a long time before being passed along to another host animal, which in turn may have passed it, along with a few mutations, to humans.

Bats were the likely culprits in the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) crisis. It is thought that the SARS virus went from bats to a different intermediate host – the civet cat – another delicacy found in Chinese street markets.

The virus then infected humans, leading to a death toll of over 800, coupled with a devastating effect on Hong Kong’s economy in 2003.

File Photo: Kaiser/United Social Press.

At this early stage, the possible transmission of the virus from bats, through another animal, to a human is still speculation. But what appears certain is that the virus originated in an animal before being passed to humans. This is not at all surprising given our long, sad history of death by diseases passed on from animals.

The bubonic plague, caused by a nasty bacterium, killed one-third of Europeans in the 14th century. The source carrier of the Black Death was fleas, but the underlying cause was the great number of rats living side by side with humans at a time when hygiene standards were close to non-existent.

Then there is another animal-sourced type of influenza that is so familiar to many of us that we know it by its scientific subtype name, H1N1. Packages of wet tissues sold locally often claim to kill this virus along with H5N1. These two viruses are otherwise known as swine and bird flu, respectively.

Queen Mary Hospital. Photo: Wong Wai Ping/United Social Press.

H1N1 is also known as the Spanish flu. It originated in Europe and killed tens of millions of people in 1918, many of them in Spain. Presently, because of better hygiene and knowledge about how to avoid transmission, all of these pathogens have little chance to do such damage, even in our globalised world.

However, it remains disturbing that every few years we have to experience yet another threat to our health because of a disease that has jumped from animal to human, this time effectively putting a damper on the biggest festival of the year.

The market in Wuhan, which is said to be the source of the outbreak, sold a wide range of wild animals, some of which were held in tiny cages, waiting to be executed. Bats are known to be particularly auspicious, not so much because of their taste, but apparently, because the word for “bat” in Chinese sounds like the word for good fortune.

Like SARS, the present coronavirus likely originated in a Chinese market selling wild animals. One would think that these viruses coming out of China would be incentive enough for the government there to get rid of these markets for good, given the number of deaths incurred – never mind the economic costs. The bats, cats and other creatures would also appreciate it.

Paul Stapleton

Paul Stapleton is a long-time resident of several countries in Asia, where he has been teaching and researching at various universities. He writes about environmental, social and educational issues. In his op-eds, Paul's goal is to shed some light on issues of interest as well as generate a bit of heat. Paul’s website is at Academic Proofreading Plus.