What is a wet market, and should they be banned because of the pandemic?

what is a wet market
Photo via Sarah J/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)

Though scientists and epidemiologists are still trying to determine the origin of the coronavirus, the predominant theory has been that it came from a live animal from a food market in Wuhan, China. These “wet markets,” as they’re commonly referred to, are open-air markets consisting of stalls that carry produce, meat, and seafood—including live and exotic wildlife that are bought and slaughtered on the spot.

The Huanan market in Wuhan where the COVID-19 is believed to have spread reportedly sold live animals such as foxes, wolf cubs, civets, turtles, and snakes.

These live (and oftentimes illegal) animals have been believed to spread diseases to humans. For example, the SARS coronavirus is thought to have originated in bats before passing to civets and then humans; the MERS coronavirus was transmitted from camels to humans after also likely emerging in bats.

The World Organization for Animal Health has stated that COVID-19 is a “close relative” of other viruses found in horseshoe bats and that the virus likely may have passed from bat to human via an “intermediate host.” One theory is that it was transferred from bat to pangolin to humans.

The argument for banning wet markets

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, China has placed a temporary ban on wet markets. But experts argue that a temporary ban is not enough, and as long as these markets continue to operate, there will always be the threat of disease.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has been just one of many outspoken voices in the medical community against wet markets. So has famous primatologist Jane Goodall.

“Well I have no authority to call for anything but I can certainly tell you how I feel,” Fauci said in a televised interview with Fox News in early April. “I think they should shut down those things right away. It boggles my mind now, when we have so many diseases that emanate out of that unusual human-animal interface that we don’t just shut it down. I don’t know what else has to happen to get us to appreciate that, and I think that there are certain countries in which this is very commonplace. 

“I would like to see the rest of the world really lean with a lot of pressure on those countries that have that, because what we’re going through right now is a direct result of that.”

Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, acting executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, has said that countries around the world should think about banning wet markets that sell live and dead animals for human consumption to prevent potential future pandemics.

“The message we are getting is if we don’t take care of nature, it will take care of us,” Mrema recently told the Guardian. “It would be good to ban the live animal markets as China has done and some countries. But we should also remember you have communities, particularly from low-income rural areas, particularly in Africa, which are dependent on wild animals to sustain the livelihoods of millions of people.”

However, without alternatives, Mrema warned against the dangers of opening up illegal trade in wild animals, when some species are currently already on the brink of extinction. “We need to look at how we balance that and really close the hole of illegal trade in the future,” she added.

In Australia, officials are not yet calling for an outright ban but agree that wet markets may eventually need to be “phased out.”

Agriculture minister David Littleproud said he was not targeting all food markets and that specifically, wet markets such as the Sydney fish market—which sells predominately seafood—is “perfectly safe.”

“But when you add wildlife, live wildlife, exotic wildlife, that opens up human risk and biosecurity risk to the extent we have seen,” Littleproud said during an April 23 news conference. “And in fact, China themselves reported this to the World Organization for Animal Health, that that was the cause of COVID-19.”

Littleproud said that he wanted to “get the science” first, but he added, “Even our chief veterinary officer is telling us that he believes they [wildlife wet markets] may need to be phased out.”

Sources: BBC, Guardian, NPR

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