China cracked down on the sale of exotic species after an outbreak of a new virus in 2002 was linked to markets selling live animals. The germ turned out to be a coronavirus that caused SARS.
The ban was then lifted and the animals reappeared.
Now, another coronavirus is spreading across China, killing 1,380 people so far and sickening more than 64,000 – far more than SARS.
The suspected origin? The same type of market.
With more than 60 million people in lockdown in more than a dozen Chinese cities, the new outbreak is prompting calls for a permanent ban on the sale of wildlife, which many say is fueled by a limited group of wealthy people who regard animals as delicacies.
The spreading disease also serves as a grim reminder that the way animals are handled anywhere can endanger people everywhere.
“There are a large number of viruses in the animal world which have not spread to humans and have the potential to do so,” said Robert Webster, influenza virus expert at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. from Memphis.
SARS and the current COVID-19 epidemic are not the only diseases in humans that can be traced back to animals.
The killing and selling of so-called bushmeat in Africa is believed to be a source of Ebola.
Bird flu likely originated from chickens in a Hong Kong market in 1997. Measles is believed to have evolved from a virus that infected cattle.
Scientists have yet to determine exactly how the new coronavirus first infected people. Evidence suggests it originated from bats, which infected another animal that passed it on to people at a market in the southeastern city of Wuhan.
The now closed Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market advertised dozens of species such as giant salamanders, baby crocodiles and raccoon dogs which were often referred to as wild animals, even when raised. .
Of the 33 samples from the Wuhan market that tested positive for the coronavirus, officials say 31 were from the area where the wildlife stalls were concentrated.
Compared to long-domesticated livestock like chickens and pigs, researchers say less is known about viruses that circulate in wild animals.
The Wuhan market was also like many other âwet marketsâ in Asia and elsewhere, where animals are tied or stacked in cages.
Animals are often slaughtered on site to ensure freshness. The messy mixture increases the chances that a new virus will jump to people handling animals and start spreading, experts say.
“You have live animals, so there is feces everywhere. There is blood from people chopping them up,” said Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance.
And more frequent global travel and trade means there is a greater risk of epidemics spreading.
China’s taste for wildlife is relatively new, driven by the country’s economic growth, said Peter Li of the University of Houston.
But with the epidemic disrupting lives across the country, many on Chinese social media are expressing frustration that the wealthy appetite for wildlife is putting everyone at risk once again.
There are signs that the Chinese government could make more lasting changes to the way alien species are raised and sold.
This month, Chinese leader Xi Jinping said the country should “resolutely ban and crack down” on the illegal wildlife trade because of the public health risks it poses.
In eastern Anhui province, authorities have sealed off farms breeding species such as badgers and bamboo rats. In the port city of Tianjin, authorities cracked down on the sale of wild animals.
Jinfeng Zhou of the environmental group China Biodiversity, Conservation and Green Development Foundation, points to an advertisement in the Wuhan market listing 72 species – including peacocks and bullfrogs – as proof that the trade is too lucrative to be stopped by anything less than a total ban on all wildlife.
Others disagree, arguing that banning wildlife trade is not a realistic way to reduce risk, especially in poorer parts of the world where it can be a source of food. important.
They say that improved oversight, regulation or public education could better control the problem.
Even if China succeeds in regulating or banning it, the wildlife trade will likely continue elsewhere.
Recent visits to wet markets on Sulawesi Island in Indonesia and the coastal town of Doula in Cameroon revealed conditions similar to wet markets in China.
Vendors slaughtered and roasted bats, dogs, rats, crocodiles and snakes, and sanitation measures were scarce.
The ongoing destruction of species’ habitats will likely bring people into closer contact with animals and their viruses, said Raina Plowright, a researcher at the University of Montana.