29 Apr 2020


Wildlife crime has driven nature off balance, and it’s putting us all at risk. By calling on the closure of high-risk wildlife markets, human health will be protected too. Please donate today to help draw the line on the illegal wildlife trade. You’ll also be saving endangered species from being driven to extinction.

The World Health Organization reports that a zoonotic disease is the likely source of the current novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, that has put the world into a standstill. So how do these diseases come about and how do we stop a pandemic like this from happening again? 

We asked Darren Grover, WWF-Australia’s Head of Healthy Land and Seascapes. 

First, what is a zoonotic disease? 

Zoonotic diseases are infectious diseases that pass from animals to humans. About 75% of new and infectious diseases are zoonotic, with about one billion cases of illness and millions of deaths occurring every year from these diseases.

Visualisation of COVID-19
Visualisation of COVID-19 © Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash

Where do zoonotic diseases come from? 

As we encroach on natural environments, the diverse wildlife living in remote and pristine ecosystems will come into ever-greater contact with humans. This interaction heightens the chances of human exposure to diseases.

The illegal wildlife trade and wet markets can be common sources of the spread of zoonotic diseases, like in the case of COVID-19.

What are wet markets and do we have them in Australia? 

A wet market varies from country to country. But ultimately, a wet market is a marketplace that sells fresh meat, fish, fruit, vegetables and other perishable goods all in the same place as distinguished from ‘dry markets’ that sell durable goods such as fabric and electronics. 

Stock footage of a market
Stock footage of a market © Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

They’re common in many parts of the world, particularly in China and Southeast Asia. But even here in Australia, if you’ve purchased fresh food from a market (that’s not a supermarket), this could be referred to as a wet market.  

The difference is that some markets in China and Southeast Asia can sell multiple species of wildlife, both alive and dead, alongside common livestock, poultry and seafood. This mix of species can often result in unsanitary conditions. 

What are the issues with wet markets?

The majority of wet markets are safe and are essential in providing communities with a source of protein. Most wet markets don’t trade wild or exotic animals, but those that do have been linked to outbreaks of zoonotic diseases. 

Animals for sale at an illegal wildlife market
Animals for sale at an illegal wildlife market © TRAFFIC

The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, is believed to have played a role in the COVID-19 pandemic, although investigations into the source of infection are ongoing.

If sanitation standards are not maintained, wet markets can spread disease. Those that carry live animals and wildlife are at especially high risk of transmitting zoonotic diseases. Newly acquired animals can come in direct contact with sales clerks, butchers, and customers or to other animals which they would never interact with in the wild. This may allow for some animals to act as intermediate hosts, helping a disease spread to humans.

Did bats cause the COVID-19 pandemic?

Scientists say it is highly likely that this novel coronavirus came from bats, while there have been reports that it potentially jumped to pangolins that were being sold at wet markets, there is still no conclusive evidence of how COVID-19 was able to infect people. While the source of the virus is likely from bats, the pandemic was caused by people.

Could wildlife like bats in Australia spread COVID-19?

No, there is no evidence that bats in Australia, or any Australian wildlife, have COVID-19-like viruses, nor are they a source of COVID-19. 

RJ the orphaned flying fox is in care with Dr Anne Fowler in Adelaide
RJ the orphaned flying fox is in care with Dr Anne Fowler in Adelaide © WWF-Australia / Sii Studio

However, bats and flying foxes in Australia carry bacteria and diseases like Australian bat lyssavirus (ABLV) that can be harmful to humans, though the risk of infection is low. If you are not a trained professional or have not been vaccinated, you should not handle bats. If you see an injured bat, contact your local wildlife care group.

Should we cull bats to protect ourselves?

No. Culling bats won’t end the COVID-19 pandemic or help us avoid future disease outbreaks. In fact, it could make the risk of potential outbreaks worse. By culling wildlife and encroaching on their habitat, we make animals more stressed and therefore more prone to diseases.

The benefits provided by bats, in terms of regulating insect numbers and acting as pollinators, far outweigh the risks they pose.

How do we stop future outbreaks?

As humans continue to destroy natural environments, we increase our likelihood of coming into contact with wildlife that may host a disease. By destroying our forests, wetlands, and oceans, we heighten the chances of exposure to disease, but also dismantle the very places critical to our survival and well-being. 

If we are to manage the spread of disease and ensure a healthy future for humanity we have to protect and restore our forests and oceans.

We also need governments to do more to stop the illegal wildlife trade, including through the closure of illegal and unregulated wildlife markets.

But we must also seize this life-changing moment to build a more sustainable and resilient future. We must look at how nature and planet-friendly solutions can create a different and stable economy. 

We need to protect nature to protect ourselves. Healthy ecosystems and a stable climate are essential to human health, well-being and a secure economy.