As the number of COVID-19 cases in the United States grow and the government scrambles to address the virus’s spread, it’s important to reflect on its source and discuss the role that consumption of animals plays in the spread of the disease.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19 likely originated in bats, and the first outbreak in Wuhan, China, has been linked to a live animal market. These markets, known as “wet markets,” allow the sale of wild animals and put people in close proximity to both live and dead animals with little or no regulatory oversight. Wet markets are also thought to be the place where other deadly diseases like severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) crossed the species barrier.
COVID-19 and SARS are not the only diseases that began in animals and now infect humans. An alarming 75 percent of new or emerging diseases start in animals. Researchers have found 13 zoonoses (diseases transmitted between animals and humans) which cause 2.2 million human deaths per year. Most of these infections can be traced to farm animals such as chickens, cows, pigs and goats. The World Health Organization notes that some of these diseases, like avian flu, which originated in chickens and spread to humans, are more deadly than standard flu viruses.
It’s not just live animal markets that put the world at risk by being breeding grounds for disease. Because Americans eat more meat per person than almost any other country, most farms have shifted into large-scale animal factories. Each of these operations is packed with animals—sometimes hundreds of thousands—creating the perfect conditions for spreading disease.
While governments and companies worldwide are canceling conferences and events in an attempt to stop the human-to-human transmission of COVID-19, we’re simultaneously cramming billions of animals together, effectively creating the same opportunity for disease transmission between these animals, which may then spread to humans.
Furthermore, in an attempt to keep animals alive in these filthy conditions until they reach “slaughter weight,” factory farms commonly give them antibiotics. Often these antibiotics are medically important for treating human diseases, and their overuse and misuse in animal farming is contributing to the antibiotic resistance crisis. Leading health care organizations plead that without urgent action to reduce antibiotic use in all settings—including in farm animals—we will be facing a time when these drugs no longer work for people or animals.
In addition to viral spread from these animal factories, high consumption of the products that these facilities produce—meat, eggs and dairy—creates a greater risk of chronic illness. Over and over again, studies link diets heavy in animal products to higher rates of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and types of cancer.
As we attempt to fight the spread of COVID-19, now is the time to think critically about how we want to continue to feed ourselves here in the U.S. and around the world. Clearly, this is a serious problem that seems to be of our own making. It’s a cruel irony that as we’re killing animals for food, it’s killing us, too.