Increased Interaction With Animals Likely Caused More Coronavirus Outbreaks Among Humans

Increased Interaction With Animals Likely Caused More Coronavirus Outbreaks Among Humans

New forms of interaction with animals resulted from changing patterns of land use, urbanization and intensified animal farming could have triggered the deadly epidemics of coronaviruses among humans in recent decades, experts told Sputnik

MOSCOW (Pakistan Point News / Sputnik - 21st January, 2020) New forms of interaction with animals resulted from changing patterns of land use, urbanization and intensified animal farming could have triggered the deadly epidemics of coronaviruses among humans in recent decades, experts told Sputnik.

According to the latest figure from China's National Health Commission, the number of confirmed pneumonia cases infected by the new coronavirus in the country jumped to 291 by the end of Monday, when 77 new cases were reported during the day.

The new coronavirus was first discovered in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province in the beginning of January, after a number of patients exhibited pneumonia-like symptoms. Local health authorities said the first group of patients was business owners in a seafood market, which reportedly also sold live wild animals.

Latest figures from the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission showed that the number of confirmed coronavirus infection cases reached 258 by the end of Monday.

The new coronavirus triggered the deadly outbreak in China belonged to the same strain of viruses that caused similar global epidemics such as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003 and the middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012, which both killed hundreds of the infected.

Health experts suggested that the deadly epidemics of coronaviruses in recent decades could be related to increased exposure to such viruses through more contact with infected animals like bats.

"Coronaviruses have been around for quite a long time, and humans have been exposed to them on a regular basis. Changing patterns of land use where people come into contact with, for example, bat colonies, has resulted in new human-to-animal interactions, which has contributed to the emergence of new viruses in humans. Added to that, we have also seen a tremendous increase in international travel, urbanization and intensification of animal farming and food production, and these are all factors that can help viruses spread," Adam Kamradt-Scott, an expert in the spread and control of infectious diseases at the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney, told Sputnik.

The expert pointed out that identifying the host of the new coronavirus discovered in China would be the key to prevent a wider epidemic.

"Pathogens that transmit from animals to humans are known as zoonoses, and they account for approximately 70 percent of new diseases that affect humans. There can be a variety of ways in which these diseases may spread, such as encountering contaminated feces, blood or urine, consuming meat that hasn't been fully cooked, or respiratory exposure. As we don't currently know the host for this new virus, we don't know if it has spread from animals or the route by which it has spread. It will be important in the coming weeks to identify the host so that we can contain the virus and prevent it spreading further," he said.

In 2017, a group of Chinese scientists, led by Shi Zheng-Li and Cui Jie of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, tested thousands of horseshoe bats in the country for more than five years and suggested that the strain of coronavirus that caused the SARS epidemic came from the bats.

According to a report released by a group of Chinese scientists from the Guangzhou Municipal Center of Disease Control and Prevention in 2005, early cases of SARS infection started among staff members and cooks in a restaurant selling palm civets in the city. All of the six palm civets at the restaurant were tested positive for SARS-associated coronaviruses, the report said.

Palm civets used to be a popular delicacy in southern China before the deadly SARS outbreak. A large number of farms cultivating the palm civets were shut down after the epidemic.

Following the SARS outbreak, Chinese media put the blame of the epidemic on locals favoring exotic wild animals as a delicacy in southern China.

However, scientists argued that consuming of exotic animal meat may not directly lead to contraction of new viruses, as the infection could happen during the process of handling the infected animals.

"Viruses jump species usually following a genetic mutation that allows them to infect humans, and usually in settings where there is close contact between humans and livestock or animals. Eating meats is one example, but other examples including farming, working in live animal markets and keeping domestic livestock," Raina MacIntyre, Professor of Global Biosecurity and Head of the Biosecurity Research Program at the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales Medicine, told Sputnik.

Similar to the emergency responses during the SARS epidemic in 2003, Chinese authorities have introduced strict monitoring and quarantine protocols as part of their efforts to contain the further spread of the new coronavirus.

According to the official People's Daily, local authorities in Wuhan have halted outbound tourist groups from the city and started to inspect vehicles moving in and out of the city to make sure live birds and wild animals were not being transported. A large number of temperature measuring devices have also been installed in major airports, train stations and bus stations in the city, the report said.

Health experts stressed that quarantining the infected patients was still the most effective method in containing the deadly virus.

"The important part right now is to quarantine infected patients so they don't spread the virus to other patients or health care workers. Today there is a report that 14 health care workers have become infected suggesting that the containment in hospitals is not currently sufficient. People with pneumonia and respiratory illness should also self-quarantine and be careful during traveling," Matthew Frieman, a coronavirus expert at the University of Maryland, told Sputnik.

As tens of millions of Chinese people are expected to return to their hometown this week during the Chinese New year holidays, the nation will face a major test as it tries to contain the new coronavirus from spreading further.

Professor MacIntyre warned that public health staff in China would have to be on high alert to deal with challenges during the Chinese New Year holidays.

"The timing during Spring Festival [Chinese New Year] makes it more challenging, not just because of increased travel (and potential spread), but because public health staffing may be decreased because skilled people are on leave. However, good risk communication to the public, clear instructions on reporting of potential cases, and high alert for hospitals and clinics for cases of pneumonia, can mitigate the risk," she said.

Nevertheless, Professor Frieman noted that the lethality of the new coronavirus in China is still unknown.

"SARS and MERS are highly lethal with SARS causing 10% of fatal cases and MERS with 35% fatal cases. We don't really know what the future holds for 2019-nCoV virus in its lethality," he said.

Since the beginning of the recent coronavirus outbreak in China, six patients have died out of 291 confirmed cases in the country.