It matters for animals that we understand how the COVID-19 pandemic spreads around the world.
It matters for animals that the language we use to discuss and explain these facts is clear, accurate and does not create confusion. It's already too easy for those who wish to continue to exploit animals to dismiss our words and actions.
So let’s not make those mistakes with COVID-19 - and counter them wherever we find them.
We know from past pandemics that the majority of coronaviruses such as COVID-19, SARS and MERS jumped from animals to humans, possibly via an intermediary animal host, and typically through places where animals are exploited for food. We'll talk more about these below.
Beyond this indisputable fact that, as a zoonotic virus, COVID-19 is a result of human contact with other animals, epidemiologists are seeking to establish precisely where, when and how the virus came to be.
We are told that it most likely originated at a 'wet market' in Wuhan, China, where it spread from an animal to a human, and in doing so mutated from a strictly non-human virus into an adapted zoonotic virus that can spread from humans to humans (and, it now appears, from humans to other kinds of animals).
'Wet' markets – markets where live animals are sold alongside dead ones and often killed on-site – have been at the center of previous zoonosis outbreaks such as SARS and H5N1.
An asymptomatic carrier of the virus can, theoretically, take it with them wherever they go, infecting any number of people who also may show no symptoms.
Even those who do eventually suffer from symptoms may experience a long incubation period before this happens. This renders it near-impossible to pin down the precise place and time of infection.
Where did it begin?
For some, this has called into question whether or not the Huanan wet market in Wuhan is really where the virus began.
Is this where the human in question and the animal in question came into contact? Or was this particular market a coincidental catalyst in the spread of the disease?
Some have even interpreted scientific journal articles in favor of dismissing the wet market as the most likely source. But this would be a serious error.
Let's take a look at some facts
An article published in January in the peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet laid out key information available to date on COVID-19: how the virus typically presents in symptomatic humans, when and where it was first recorded, and how many of the patients in a study had direct exposure to the Huanan wet market.
It reports that of the 41 patients with laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19, 66 percent had a history of direct exposure to the market in question. All of the patients suffered from pneumonia. A third of the patients were admitted to intensive care, and six patients died. The symptom onset date of the first confirmed COVID-19 patient was December 1, 2019. There were no children or adolescents in the cohort.
Despite the fact that the majority of the patients in this study had direct exposure to the Huanan wet market, and despite the fact that – as we now know – carriers of the virus can be asymptomatic, especially when young, some have chosen to interpret this article as disputing the link between COVID-19 and Wuhan’s wet market of live animals.
But there’s nothing in the article that would suggest this.
Let's take a closer look at the facts
The Lancet study reports that the first confirmed COVID-19 patient in their cohort to show symptoms, on December 1, did not have 'direct exposure' to the Huanan wet market in Wuhan.
It also reports that there was no epidemiological link between this first case, on December 1, and later cases, starting from December 10. The first fatal case was that of a man who had 'continuous exposure' to the market, and five days later his wife, 'who had no known history of exposure to the market', also presented with pneumonia symptoms and was hospitalized in the isolation ward.
It goes without saying that 'no direct exposure' does not preclude indirect exposure. In the case of the husband and wife, the husband had continuous direct exposure to the market (for example, by working or shopping there), but his wife did not (for example, she worked and shopped elsewhere).
But who on earth would think to draw from this the conclusion that there was no link at all between a husband and wife?
The problem here is not the wording of the scientific journal article. The wording is absolutely adequate: the wife had no direct exposure to the market. It means that she did not go there herself, in person. It does not suggest that she was not indirectly exposed by having close contact with a regular market-goer, i.e. her husband.
Those who interpret this wording to mean 'no link' or 'no connection' with the market, as has been done in this article and by those quoting it, are grossly misrepresenting the facts.
What we can confidently state is this: a third of the cohort in this study were not registered as having 'direct exposure' to the market, and this fact is not incompatible with the hypothesis that the virus originated there.
Or, put more simply: you don't need to be at the place where a virus originates to catch it, if it can spread between humans. This is especially true if we know that some humans are asymptomatic carriers.
Since the Lancet study was published, South China Morning Post released this article reporting that private government records show the first COVID-19 infection 'could have been' as far back as November 2019, 'but "patient zero" has yet to be confirmed'.
In other words, the data is not publicly available and those who have seen it cannot confirm anything to the contrary of what the Lancet article provides.
Unfortunately, some websites have decided to run with it. Headlines such as 1st known case of coronavirus traced back to November have been used to refute the theory that the Huanan wet market is the most likely source of this coronavirus.
First of all, it hasn’t been traced back to November. Secondly, does this change the story? Was the Huanan wet market a one-time event in December? There is nothing in either of the articles that suggests this.
Based on the facts, we say: 'no'. You cannot conclude from this evidence that the 'wet market' theory has been disproved. To say so is to misunderstand and to mislead. And that is dangerous, for all the animals and humans caught up in this tragedy.
Why there are inaccurate articles that misconstrue facts with buzzy headlines is not a great mystery. Why people might accept this information and choose to repeat it, on the other hand, is less straightforward and much more interesting.
Misunderstanding the science is an attitude problem
What is going on when people so badly and blatantly misunderstand science, and, to compound their error, start sharing their false arguments? Is it a lack of scientific literacy? A desire to be provocative? A wish to spread misinformation? It’s hard to comment definitively on the motivations of individuals, but we do know that this is a common human problem.
One of the greatest challenges we face in this pandemic, and within the broader climate and animal emergencies of which COVID-19 is only a symptom, is our human tendency to want to create and justify our own reality. This is how our cognitive processes work: we want the world to make sense to us, because it feels good/safe/certain.
And if the facts get in the way? Well, there’s a near-infinite number of sources on the internet from which individuals might choose 'alternative facts' that fit their preferred reality.
A name that has been given to this phenomenon is motivated reasoning. Cognitive scientists, social scientists and psychologists have been studying this tendency now for decades.
We tend to think our beliefs are 'rational' where scientific facts are concerned - that we are persuaded only by facts, to do X rather than Y - but it is clear beyond doubt that our hopes, fears, and motivations make us more likely to accept something is true if it supports what we already believe, or want to believe.
And what we want to believe is not necessarily factually correct.
Matthew Hornsey, PhD, is Professor of Psychology at the University of Queensland. He studies the processes that influence people to accept or reject scientific messages.
The science itself is not the problem, he says. Hornsey instead focuses on a person's 'attitude roots' which are the deeply held, cognitive models of how that person has come to see the world, and the world they want to see.
"The key question is not 'Why do they disagree with the science?' but rather, 'Why do they want to disagree with the science?'" Hornsey told the American Psychological Association.
Research on the evolutionary basis of reasoning shows that while this is very useful for cooperating in social environments, it is not good at all for truth-seeking. Reasoning is almost never free from hopes, fears and motivations—and so it is more likely to make us search out information that confirms what we, and our social group, already believe.
How does he do that?
Let's take, for example, the recent actions of Donald Trump. While other administrations around the world have presented COVID-19 as a public health issue, a moral issue, or even as a natural disaster, Trump's communication has remained in the camp of 'Coronavirus as national security issue'. COVID-19 is something from 'over there', a hostile, foreign invasion that has taken the US by surprise.
Why would he choose to do this? And why would people choose to believe it?
On March 10, for example, Trump showed his support for a tweet that described COVID-19 as 'China Virus', adding: "We need the Wall more than ever!"
Aside from taking every opportunity to push right-wing policies, Trump and his advisors know that this is a smart move for keeping his constituent base on side. Mark Krikorian, head of a US think tank that advocates for reduced immigration, has remarked that the spread of COVID-19 'does reinforce a lot of the concerns people have that the President has spoken to about untrammeled travel across borders'.
Trump is not telling his audience what to think. He is simply speaking to what they already believe, and that is all he needs to do.
This is because facts are not enough. Facts alone do not persuade, unless they fit within the cognitive models that already exist in people’s minds. We may be presented with facts, George Lakoff, PhD, writes, but for us to make sense of them they must fit whatever is already in the physical synapses of the brain.
This is something that has been well understood within cognitive science for a good while, and has been capitalised upon by well-funded right-wing think tanks and communications advisors.
So what does this mean for us?
It means that we cannot expect facts to do the work for us in terms of getting information across. How many times have you shared information only for it to be ignored, or worse, disputed, by good people who you thought would see the truth in it? These good people are not denying the facts. Their brains simply do not register them as facts at all.
So other animals, and indeed humans, depend on us to tell the story in such a way that will speak to most people’s cognitive models. We need to tell new stories that represent events truthfully and in a way that is likely to be received rather than rejected. We cannot predict how everyone will respond, but we can be aware of some general overarching narratives, or 'myths', that most of us live by.
So if someone is predisposed to want to believe that the current coronavirus did not – despite all the evidence – originate in a wet market in Wuhan, then they are more likely to read the phrase 'no direct exposure' as 'no link', and to conveniently forget the story of the husband and wife. This is simply how our brains work.
But knowing this gives us an advantage, and we should be using it. Telling stories that work with the grain and not against it is our best chance for making the biggest difference for animals. Yet this cannot come at the cost of misconstruing the facts.