Checking Cornyn on Chinese culture and coronavirus

In separate interviews with reporters on March 18, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said China has been the source of multiple recent contagions breaking out because of what he called a culture of eating some animals such as bats, snakes and dogs.

In remarks captured by The Hill, Cornyn said this applies to the new coronavirus.

“China is to blame because the culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that, these viruses are transmitted from the animal to the people and that’s why China has been the source of a lot of these viruses like SARS, like MERS, the swine flu and now the coronavirus,” he said. “I think they have a fundamental problem and I don’t object to geographically identifying where it is coming from.”

He made a similar comment on a weekly conference call with reporters in Texas, stating that the “open meat markets that serve everything from bats to tapirs to snake to dog meat” allow viruses to jump from animals to humans.

The Hill’s video clip of Cornyn’s remark was shared thousands of times on social media, so we’ll focus on fact-checking that statement, keeping the context of his second claim in mind.

Cornyn spokesman Drew Brandewie said Cornyn’s statement is referring to the culture behind so-called wet markets in China.

“If people didn’t eat that type of meat, wet markets would not exist,” he said in an interview, referencing the animals Cornyn identified in his remarks.

Let’s dive in.

SARS, MERS and Swine Flu

Before we address the parts of Cornyn’s claim related to the coronavirus, let’s take a look at his assertion that the viruses SARS, MERS and swine flu originated in China.

Cornyn is right about SARS, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which was first reported in 2003 in the Guangdong province of southern China, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SARS is thought to be an animal virus, but its source remains uncertain. It is believed to have spread from the source animal to other animals and infected humans, according to the World Health Organization.

But Cornyn is wrong about where the first MERS and swine flu cases were reported. Brandewie said Cornyn misspoke when included them in his list.

MERS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012, according to the CDC.

Swine flu, or the H1N1 flu, was first identified in humans in the United States in 2009, according to the CDC.

Transmission of the virus

The first part of Cornyn’s claim states that people in China “eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that.”

But Peter Li, associate professor of East Asian Politics at the University of Houston, said this type of cuisine is not representative of Chinese culture.

“Chinese as a whole do not have wildlife eating habit,” Li said in an email. “It is the eating habit of a small number of people, just like a small number of people in the U.S. dare to eat rattlesnakes or the like. … The eating habit is not Chinese and not traditional.”

Even considering the small population that may consume these animals, Adam Kamradt-Scott, an associate professor of global health security at the University of Sydney in Australia, said “The consumption of exotic meats is not, in itself, the problem.”

“The issue is instead the level and extent of the human-animal interface that wet markets permit,” he said in an email. “Having said this, we have yet to identify the host animal for the COVID-19 virus. … It has also not been verified whether the COVID-19 virus infected humans at the wet market in Wuhan, only that some of the first cases to be identified had a history of having visited the wet market.”

The CDC’s situation page for the new virus states that early cases in China “had some link” to the market, as did numerous news articles highlighted by Brandewie in response to PolitiFact’s inquiry.

But researchers have yet to pinpoint when, where or how the virus was transmitted from animals to humans.

“It was originally suggested that it began at the Wuhan fish market, but there is no longer good evidence to support that,” said Vincent Racaniello, a virology professor in the Microbiology and Immunology Department at Columbia University who is researching the virus. “The first case was not associated with that market and now we think there were earlier clusters in November not associated with the market.”

Racaniello pointed to a paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine at the end of January by researchers in China looking at the first 425 confirmed cases of the virus.

The data shows that while the first reported cases of the new virus were linked to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, the first identified case of the virus predated the publicly reported cases and was found in a person with no connection to the market.

Other researchers also identified early cases unrelated to the market.

In the March 15 episode of his virology podcast, This Week in Virology, Racaniello interviewed coronavirus researcher Ralph Baric of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill about the origins of the current pandemic.

Baric said researchers have identified numerous SARS-like strains in bats and said it is “just a question of time for when a human comes in contact with a bat” carrying these viruses and that sparks a new pandemic.

He added that it is entirely possible that the current outbreak was caused by a person in rural China who came into contact with a bat or bat guano and then traveled to Wuhan and started the outbreak. 

Baric said the initial contact could have occurred in a farmer harvesting bat guano to use as fertilizer or “just by random chance” in a person who came into contact with bat guano when a bat flew overhead and its droppings fell.

Not strictly cultural

It’s true that markets that sell live animals that are slaughtered on the premises pose a risk or viruses to be transmitted from animals to humans, but experts said this risk exists across the globe and is not unique to China.

“His claim, if it were true, is ridiculous,” said Li, the University of Houston professor. “No country in the world monopolizes the outbreaks of epidemics.”

Racaniello said that suggesting the new coronavirus is “spread simply by eating a bat is too simplistic,” as is pointing only to China as the source of new viruses.

“If you eliminated all eating of bats, you would still have these spillovers,” he said. “The four mild coronaviruses we have probably crossed from bats into humans hundreds of years ago — that could have happened anywhere. This is much broader than eating a bat in a meat market. I think that’s the important key here, that there are a lot of ways for viruses to get from various animals into humans.”

Peter Daszak, a disease ecologist and president of the research organization EcoHealth Alliance, said global health experts discussed the potential of a new pandemic in 2018 (labeling it “Disease X”), as pandemics are on the rise and the world’s strategy for dealing with these illnesses is “woefully inadequate,” in  op-ed for the New York Times.

Daszak wrote:

“These spillovers are increasing exponentially as our ecological footprint brings us closer to wildlife in remote areas and the wildlife trade brings these animals into urban centers. Unprecedented road-building, deforestation, land clearing and agricultural development, as well as globalized travel and trade, make us supremely susceptible to pathogens like coronaviruses.”

Science writer David Quammen discussed future risk during an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air in February, and said the reason the globe is seeing more viruses in humans is because we “are so abundant and so disruptive on this planet that we come in contact with these things.”

He continued:

“There’s 7.7 billion of us. We’re cutting the tropical forests. We’re building work camps in those forests and villages. We’re eating the wildlife. We’re transporting wildlife around the world. We’re raising a lot of domestic livestock that become exposed to viruses through wildlife.

“We’re doing all these forms of disruption that I say sometimes that you go into a forest and you shake the trees, literally and figuratively, and viruses fall out. And if they fall out of their hosts, they need a new host. And we’re there. We’re available. We’re their opportunity. And then we fly around the world and carry it every which way.”

Our Ruling

Cornyn said: “China is to blame because the culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that, these viruses are transmitted from the animal to the people and that’s why China has been the source of a lot of these viruses like SARS, like MERS, the Swine Flu and now the coronavirus.”

First of all, Cornyn is wrong that MERS and the Swine Flu were first identified in humans in China. He is right that SARS and the new coronavirus were first identified in humans there. 

The problem with Cornyn’s claim is his assertion that Chinese culture is at fault. Experts said the threat of viral transmission from animal to human is not unique to China, and the risk of this kind of spillover is growing globally as humans come into closer contact with animals.

Plus, experts noted that any consumption of the animals Cornyn mentioned is not, in itself, the problem.

It is also worth noting that researchers have not pinpointed exactly when, where or how the coronavirus hopped from animals to humans. While early reports indicated that the virus jumped from animals to humans at a seafood market in Wuhan, further study has identified cases predating those in people with no connection to the market.

Taken as a whole, Cornyn’s statement is not accurate. We rate this claim False.

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