Close ‘wet markets’ to avoid viral plagues

wet market

People crowd to buy meat and fish at Khlong Toei wet market despite fears of the spread of coronavirus in Bangkok on April 14, 2020. 

Photo credit: Mladen Antonov | AFP

In the late fall of 2019, probably in a live-animal “wet market” in Wuhan, China, a strain of coronavirus previously hosted by animals made the leap to humans.

There are various theories on the intermediary species involved—snakes, bats or even the armadillo-like pangolin—have been implicated. Months later, a global pandemic triggered by that mutated virus had infected over 1.9 million, killed 115,000 and devastated economies.

Now, advocates in the animal rights and public health spheres are warning that an even worse outbreak could occur if wet markets aren’t shuttered for good.

China, especially, has a long history of selling live wildlife for food or medicinal reasons in urban wet markets. According to Humane Society International (HSI), after Covid-19 went global, international pressure forced China to temporarily ban the sale of wild animals for food in early March.

That is yet to become law, however, and wild animals used for other purposes—such as traditional medicine and some “farmed” wildlife—are not included in the ban, HSI notes.

But the current Covid-19 pandemic has illustrated just how deadly the wildlife trade can be, not just for the wild animals involved, but also for people throughout the world.

Consumption of wildlife

Covid-19 is the tipping point governments must not ignore.

In a white paper sent to governments worldwide, HSI has called for an immediate halt to the trade, transport and consumption of wildlife, which poses a risk of human disease outbreaks.

Scientists have long suspected the consumption by humans of animals normally found in the wild with human outbreaks of zoonotic (originating in animals) disease. These include severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which emerged in China in 2003 and was thought to have begun when people consumed civets sold for meat.

Another outbreak involved Middle East respiratory syndrome, which originated in the Middle East in 2012 and was traced to bats, and then camels. Ebola and HIV are also thought to have had their origins in wildlife. According to HSI, an estimated 75 per cent of emerging infectious diseases in humans are spread from other animals.

To curb outbreaks, it is imperative that countries permanently ban the wildlife trade, including for medicine, fur and pets, with the stakes so high for global human health and wildlife protection, there is no place for complacency or half measures.

But across the world, and in Asia especially, wet markets continue to thrive. In such markets, wildlife of varying species are crowded together in unhygienic and stressful conditions. Many animals are slaughtered or sold as exotic pets, creating a perfect conduit for the transmission of zoonotic disease, HSI said.

Bats, especially, are known to harbour potentially dangerous viruses, including coronaviruses. But as HSI points out, bats are sold at markets in East and Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Wild birds, too, can pass along viruses: Wild bird markets in Vietnam have been linked with the emergence and spread of H5N1 avian (“bird”) flu, the advocacy group said.

Martha Oundo, Nairobi


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