The 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome that claimed 774 lives was merely a prologue to the current COVID-19 pandemic, which had killed more than 356,000 people as of the end of May.
China’s wet markets are once again implicated in a novel coronavirus leaping from one species to another, in this case, most likely from bat to human with the aid of an intermediary species. With the SARS virus, SARS-CoV, it was the Himalayan palm civet. With the COVID-19 virus, SARS-CoV-2, an intermediate host has yet to be determined, but the pangolin is among those suspected.
Both civets and pangolins are sold in wet markets, which sell perishable foods, throughout China and much of Asia—although fish and produce are reportedly more common.
U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo cited the “strong link between illegal wildlife sold in wet markets and zoonotic diseases” when on April 22 he called on China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to permanently close China’s wildlife wet markets and all markets that illegally sell wildlife.
Australia is urging an international scientific investigation into the health risks associated with the wet markets.
“It only makes sense that we go and investigate these wildlife wet markets, to understand the risks that they pose to human health and also to biosecurity,” said David Littleproud, Australia’s agriculture minister, according to news reports.
In February, China banned the trade and consumption of live wild animals for food.
Wildlife biologist Teresa Telecky, PhD, is skeptical about the resolve of Chinese leadership to keep the restrictions in place. Speaking during a May 13 teleconference, Dr. Telecky noted how China took similar steps during the 2003 SARS outbreak, only to reverse them once the crisis ended.
“Scientists warned us that these markets are a ticking time bomb,” said Dr. Telecky, the vice president of wildlife for Humane Society International. “You almost couldn’t design a more perfect setting for animals to transmit diseases to people.”
Dr. Telecky described the markets as mixing dozens of wild and domestic animal species that are stressed and malnourished in unsanitary conditions. For the past 40 years, China has encouraged wildlife farming and trade, resulting in roughly 20,000 wild animal breeding operations and a $20 billion industry, she said.
HSI believes that a permanent ban on the trade, transport, and consumption of wildlife in China will reduce the risk of another pandemic. On April 7, World Health Day, HSI petitioned 188 governments to implement such bans.
The group has also asked the World Health Organization to advise member countries about the risks to human health and the global economy that the wildlife trade poses and urge those countries to ban the practice.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, director-general of the WHO, has expressed qualified support for reopening wet markets, however.
“WHO’s position is that when these markets are allowed to reopen, it should only be on the condition that they conform to stringent food safety and hygiene standards,” Dr. Tedros said in late April. “Governments must rigorously enforce bans on the sale and trade of wildlife for food.”
On May 19, Sens. Chris Coons of Delaware and Lindsay Graham of South Carolina introduced the Global Wildlife Health and Pandemic Prevention Act in the U.S. Senate. The bill directs the State and Agriculture departments and several agencies to identify which species and practices in live wildlife markets are most likely to ignite a zoonotic disease outbreak and to leverage international diplomacy to close such markets. The president would be able to sanction nations that continue harboring high-risk wildlife markets.
Additionally, the legislation would require U.S. agencies to coordinate their approach to zoonotic disease preparedness, minimize the human-wildlife interface by protecting ecosystems, and reduce demand among food-insecure communities that currently depend on wildlife.
Coons, a Democrat, said in a statement, “The close and unnatural contact between humans and wildlife poses a serious risk for outbreak of new diseases like the one we are dealing with today. Our priority right now is to recover from the current crisis, but we also need to take the right steps to ensure that we stop the next pandemic before it starts.”
In the same statement, Graham, a Republican, said the nation has been focused on how to recover from the virus. “There is another question though, equally urgent, that demands our attention: How can we prevent this from happening again?” he said. “Governments in Asia and elsewhere should immediately shut down markets that sell high-risk wildlife for human consumption and fully enforce laws already on the books to end the global illegal trade in wildlife.”