Should countries with “wet markets” be pressured to permanently close them to prevent viral outbreaks?
What’s the story?
In an interview on Fox & Friends, Dr. Anthony Fauci ― the director of the National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases & one of the top experts on the White House Coronavirus Task Force ― urged China to permanently close the “wet markets” that sell live & exotic animals and have been linked to outbreaks of severe viruses:
“I think they should shut down those things right away. It boggles my mind how, 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. I think 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 are going through right now is a direct result of that.”
What are “wet markets”?
- “Wet markets” are marketplaces, sometimes open air, that sell fresh meat, fish, and other perishable goods. Some wet markets sell living animals, including wildlife & domesticated animals like dogs & cats, for food.
- Their name comes from melting ice used to preserve food, as well as water used to clean blood & excrement on the floor from the animals, which may be stored & butchered on-site. Many wet markets are unsanitary and cramped, which creates conditions for the transmission of diseases from animals to humans through bacteria & viruses.
- Wet markets are relatively common in some parts of the world, including China, Southeast Asia, and Africa ― although there may be substantial differences by region. For example, a 2014 study in China found only 5% of people in Beijing consumed wild animals in the prior year, whereas 83% of people in Guangzhou had.
- China’s wet markets originated in the late 1970s after the failure of the Chinese Communist Party’s Cultural Revolution, which produced a famine that killed tens of millions of Chinese people. Because the CCP couldn’t invest in livestock production, it encouraged farmers to collect wild animals like bats, civets (cat-like animals), pangolins (endangered armadillo-like animals), rats, snakes, and others to breed for consumption & sale at local markets.
How are wet markets linked to viral outbreaks?
- The 2002-2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) originated in a colony of horseshoe bats in a cave in China’s Yunnan Province, which passed the virus onto civets that in turn served as a vector to pass the virus to humans after they were sold as food at a wet market in China’s Guangdong Province. China’s government temporarily closed the wet markets during the SARS epidemic, which killed 774 people around the world, but lifted the ban six months after its conclusion.
- Several avian influenza outbreaks have been traced to wet markets. In 1997, the H5N1 strain of “bird flu” was detected at live poultry markets in Hong Kong and six people died. From 2003-2013, 375 people who died of H5N1 after many had recent, direct contact with poultry. Recurring outbreaks of H7N9 bird flu from 2013-2017 killed 619 people in Asia, and were linked to live poultry markets.
- The Ebola virus has been linked to the consumption of “bushmeat” in Africa, which is often sold in wet markets.
- Infectious disease experts haven’t yet definitively pinpointed how the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak began in Wuhan, China. A cluster of cases in people who went to a wet market known as the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market have raised suspicion that that coronavirus was passed from animals to humans there. Studies have suggested that COVID-19 originated in bats, and that pangolins may have been the intermediate host that served as a vector in the virus’ transmission to humans.
- In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its possible wet market origins, China’s government announced a “comprehensive” ban on the sale on the trade & consumption of wild animals. However, wet markets have reportedly reopened to the public as they take advantage of an exemption allowing the sale of wild animals for use in traditional medicine, including as a treatment for the coronavirus.
How is the U.S. responding to the reopening of wet markets?
- A bipartisan group of senators ― including Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Chris Coons (D-DE) ― are planning to send a letter to the Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. and the World Health Organization (WHO) to call for the permanent closure of wet markets.
- Graham said in an interview on Fox & Friends the letter will warn China that, “If you don’t shut those wet markets down, our trading relationship is going to change.” He added:
“The source of this virus is the Chinese wet markets. But when you look — have doctors who come on and ask them, how many diseases have come from China through these wet markets where you intermingle all kinds of exotic animals, it’s just really a gross display of how you prepare food, that needs to stop.”
— Eric Revell
(Photo Credit: Daniel Case via Wikimedia / Creative Commons)