The Pandemic Epicenter: Pointing from Viruses to China’s Wildlife Trade

With the world on the verge of a global pandemic, the city of Wuhan, China has become known as the “epicenter” of the coronavirus outbreak. Although often used by journalists for its dramatic effect, the concept of a pandemic epicenter has an important scientific history.

Hong Kong-based virologists Kennedy Shortridge and C.H. Stuart-Harris first adapted the concept of epicenter to describe southern China as the likely “point of origin” for influenza pandemics in the early 1980s. The World Health Organization’s worldwide influenza surveillance program had traced both the 1957 and 1968 influenza pandemics to a source somewhere inside China. But the concept of ‘epicenter,’ as popularized by Shortridge, also incorporated the findings of laboratory experiments that linked the emergence of pandemic strains with the transmission of viruses from animals to humans. The concept of epicenter pointed to an ecological, as well as a geographic source (Fearnley 2020).

After the emergence of the COVID-19 virus, global attention once again focused on the hypothetical source of a dangerous virus: geographically, in China; and ecologically, in animals. The first cluster of cases primarily involved stall owners at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in central Wuhan, who developed severe pneumonia and were warded at hospital intensive care units. Reports soon emerged that the market sold much more than seafood, including a variety of ‘wild’ animals. In samples taken from patients, the Wuhan Institute of Virology identified genetic resemblances to a coronavirus previously isolated from bats, suggesting a bat reservoir. Then, researchers from China’s CDC reported that they isolated COVID-19 in environmental samples taken from the Huanan Wholesale Seafood market. The virus spilled over into humans from “wild animals at the seafood market,” declared Gao Fu, director of the China CDC.

A backlash against the farming, trade and consumption of wild animals quickly followed in both international and Chinese publics. In the international press, vivid descriptions of “omnivorous” wet markets depicted the sale of civet cats, snakes and wolf pups in dense crowded stalls covered with water, feathers and blood. Reiterating the “Orientalist” responses to SARS and avian flu, the emergence of the virus was blamed on  “unruly” Chinese consumers that mixed nature and culture in unacceptable ways (Zhan 2005). But many scientists, conservationists, and concerned citizens in China have also called for a permanent ban on wildlife trading, farming and consumption. Nineteen scientists from the China Academy of Sciences published an open letter on social media calling for the elimination of illegal wildlife trade. “Regulate the illegal wildlife trade at the source, by completely banning the illegal consumption of wild animals,” the letter demanded. In late February, China instituted a permanent ban on wildlife trade and consumption.

In ways reminiscent of both pandemic influenza and SARS, scientists transposed laboratory research onto the landscapes of southern China. Phylogenetic accounts of viral kinship—documenting the resemblance of COVID-19 (isolated from humans) to BatCoV RaTG1 (isolated from horseshoe bats in Yunnan)—became historical narratives of how the virus emerged from animal to human populations. Underlying the dramatic tales of wild animal markets, therefore, is another story: the incredible speed at which the virus genome was sequenced by Chinese laboratories and shared internationally. In contrast with the “competitive global coordination” that characterized the sequencing race during SARS (Fischer 2013), and the disputes over “viral sovereignty” in the response to avian influenza (Hinterberger and Porter 2015), Chinese labs rapidly posted a complete sequence of the COVID-19 virus to the EpiFlu database platform managed by the Global Initiative to Share All Influenza Data (GISAID). Within days, teams in Austria, the United States, and Singapore were posting research findings based on bioinformatics modeling that showed the relationships to other viruses, as well identifying possible vaccine and pharmaceutical targets.

In order to develop these comparative inferences, researchers relied on a large archive of coronaviruses previously sampled from bats and other animals in China. Led by Chinese laboratories, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology, these viral discovery programs collected at least 15 novel coronaviruses from bats, including 11 isolated from a single bat cave in south China’s Yunnan Province (Hu, et al 2017). More broadly, the sequencing skills and capacity demonstrated in the response to the outbreak built on China’s enormous investment in laboratory sciences—including the construction of the Biosafety Level 4 Laboratory, capable of working with the most dangerous pathogens, at Wuhan’s Institute of Virology. The coronavirus outbreak clearly demonstrated the success of recent investments in virus sampling, sequencing and sharing—infrastructures that enabled the “prediction” and mitigation, if not “prevention” of an emerging zoonosis (Morse, et al 2012).

Yet just as the outbreak demonstrated the success of programs devoted to studying the “global virome”, it also exposed the relative paucity of cultural and ecological knowledge of the context of viral emergence. Detailed models of the molecular structure of the COVID-19 coronavirus have been published on the GISAID website; thickly branching phylogenetic trees showing the relatedness of hundreds of virus samples sequenced since the onset of the epidemic are widely circulated; but a basic fact like the number and variety of animal species sold at the Huanan wholesale market is still unknown. Crucial questions that would enable understanding how a virus that previously infected bats ‘spilled over’ into other animal and then human populations are hardly asked, let alone answered: where are wild animal farms located and distributed across China’s rural landscapes? What new or changing farming practices may have increased contacts across the domestic–wild interface? As spatial ecologist Marius Gilbert and colleagues (2017) have written, viral discovery leads us to identify viruses with the location of their host reservoirs—in this case, bat caves in south China—but we ignore the “gradual changes in anthropogenic environmental and wildlife factors” (2) that could lead one of these viruses to emerge rather than others, and in locations far from their original reservoir. We need better diagnostics of the ecological suitability for spillover, maps of the highways and bridges of viral traffic between wild animals and humans, and not only archives of viruses collected from wildlife reservoirs.

A permanent ban on wildlife trade, including wildlife farming, may be useful in the immediate context of the outbreak, particularly since the relevant host species is still unknown. Ironically, however, calls for a permanent ban also reflects the limited cultural and ecological knowledge of human engagements with wildlife. As I learned during my fieldwork with wild swan goose farmers in China’s Jiangxi Province, the simple classificatory opposition of ‘wild’ and ‘domestic’ does not capture the multiplicity of human-animal relations (Fearnley 2015). Some ‘wild’ species have been farmed for centuries, such as frogs, quail, and turtles. Domestication itself, as Tim Ingold (1980) has pointed out, is an imprecise term that can describe at least three different human engagements with animals: taming, herding, and breeding. In China, the modes of wild animal husbandry vary from intensive ‘frog factories’ serving the international frog-leg market to specialty producers like the wild swan goose farmers I know.

What all of these disparate species and modes of farming primarily have in common is their regulatory status under Chinese law. I often asked the swan goose farmers whether they though of the geese as wild or domestic. “In China, we call this ‘special type husbandry’ (tezhong yangzhi),” a farmer named Ye replied. “In fact, they belong to forestry (State Forestry Administration), not agriculture (Ministry of Agriculture).”  The regulatory category of “special-type husbandry” (tezhong yangzhi) rules apply to everything from frogs, turkeys and quails to civet cats, bamboo rats, tigers and bears.

Much has been made of the State Forestry Administration’s conflict of interest as both promoter and regulator of the wildlife trade. But perhaps equally important is the extension of SFA’s authority to all farmed ‘wildlife’. In order to raise swan geese, Ye told me he first needed to apply for a license from the SFA. The SFA sent a team to inspect his farm, to see that the conditions are good, and would not cause harm to the environment. But Ye acknowledged that SFA was not very experienced with animal husbandry. “They still mostly deal with forests.” The SFA did hold a special conference for wild goose farmers, in which Ye got to meet other farmers from across Jiangxi and Zhejiang provinces. Even at the conference, though, a Forestry official admitted to Ye that the SFA did not know much about raising swan geese. “Are they even good to eat?” the official joked.

Ye found the classification especially irritating because it meant he could not apply to the Ministry of Agriculture for subsidies offered to livestock farmers. “I don’t have to pay their licensing fees, but I don’t get the subsidies either.” But this also means that the Ministry of Agriculture cannot set husbandry standards, monitor health or conduct preventative interventions in wild animal farms. For example, China’s Ministry of Agriculture initiated a universal immunization program for avian influenza H5N1in 2005, which literally required the vaccination of 100% of domestic poultry (jiaqin)—including chickens, ducks and geese.  But since wild swan geese are not under MOA regulatory authority, state veterinary officials did not vaccinate the swan goose farms.

When I asked Ye if he had suffered any outbreaks of disease in his geese, he explained that he vaccinated all the geese himself. But from a public health point of view, this DIY vaccination may be a serious problem. Based on a survey of wild bird farms near the Poyang Lake, wild bird biologist Changqing Ding found that vaccination for H5N1 avian influenza was inconsistent and irregular. Although most farmers did conduct some form of vaccination, the number and timing of doses varied widely, suggesting that immunization was probably ineffective (Fearnley 2020).

It is often claimed that farming wildlife drives the emergence of viral pathogens because wild species simply carry more pathogens than domestic livestock. However, the disease risk posed by wildlife farming may in part reflect regulatory, rather than biological status: classification as “wild” places these animals outside of almost any farm-based health governance and pathogen surveillance, even when the animals farmed are as biologically similar as wild geese are to domestic geese. The vision of “One Health” calls for a unified, interdisciplinary effort to control infectious disease in humans, domestic livestock, and wildlife. Part of such a vision should include drawing on detailed social and ecological study to rethink our classifications of humans and other animals from the ground up, in order to make risk-based targeted interventions, rather than pushing the farming of all ‘wild’ animals underground.

Works Cited

Fearnley, Lyle. 2015. “Wild Goose Chase the Displacement of Influenza Research in the Fields of Poyang Lake, China.” Cultural Anthropology 30 (1): 12–35.

Fearnley, Lyle. Virulent Zones: Animal Disease and Global Health at China’s Pandemic Epicenter. Durham.: Duke University Press, 2020.

Fischer, M. M. J. “Biopolis: Asian Science in the Global Circuitry.” Science Technology & Society Science Technology & Society 18, no. 3 (2013): 379–404.

Gilbert, Marius, Xiangming Xiao, and Timothy P. Robinson. 2017. “Intensifying Poultry Production Systems and the Emergence of Avian Influenza in China: A ‘One Health/Ecohealth’ Epitome.” Archives of Public Health 75 (1): 48.

Hinterberger, Amy, and Natalie Porter. “Genomic and Viral Sovereignty: Tethering the Materials of Global Biomedicine.” Public Culture 27, no. 2 76 (May 1, 2015): 361–86.

Hu, Ben, Lei-Ping Zeng, Xing-Lou Yang, Xing-Yi Ge, Wei Zhang, Bei Li, Jia-Zheng Xie, et al. 2017. “Discovery of a Rich Gene Pool of Bat SARS-Related Coronaviruses Provides New Insights into the Origin of SARS Coronavirus.” PLOS Pathogens 13 (11): e1006698.

Ingold, Tim. 1980. Hunters, Pastoralists and Ranchers: Reindeer Economies and Their Transformations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Morse, Stephen S., Jonna AK Mazet, Mark Woolhouse, Colin R. Parrish, Dennis Carroll, William B. Karesh, Carlos Zambrana-Torrelio, W. Ian Lipkin, and Peter Daszak. “Prediction and Prevention of the next Pandemic Zoonosis.” The Lancet 380, no. 9857 (2012): 1956–1965.

Zhan, Mei. “Civet Cats, Fried Grasshoppers, and David Beckham’s Pajamas: Unruly Bodies after SARS.” American Anthropologist 107, no. 1 (2005): 31–42.

 Lyle Fearnley is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). His first book — Virulent Zones: Animal Disease and Global Health at China’s Pandemic Epicenter —will be published in 2020 (Duke University Press).  Currently, his research focuses on 1) the contested futures of rice genetics and food safety in China, and 2) the ecological governance of waste and health in Singapore after hygienic modernity.

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