How COVID-19 and the Wildlife Trade Market are Linked
By: Sai Srihaas Potu
It was New Year’s Eve 2019 when health officials in China admitted that they had a problem. A rapidly growing number of people were developing a dry cough and fever before getting pneumonia and for some, it turned fatal. Doctors have named the disease COVID-19 indicating that a type of virus is causing the illness. When they tried to trace its origin they found a likely source: Huanan Market in Wuhan, China.
But this isn’t some normal food market, beavers and raccoons are sold at this market in the Wuhan province. These exotic meats can contain deadly bacteria and viruses that can be detrimental to the human body. People who purchased and ate these meats didn’t realize that it was infected until it was too late. By now they are already infected and the virus is rampaging across the Wuhan area.
Chinese officials quickly closed the market down after evidence showed that out of the first 41 patients 27 had visited the local marketplace. In 2002 a coronavirus had emerged at a very similar market in southern China. It eventually reached 29 countries and killed nearly 800 people. Now, eighteen years later, this coronavirus is in a total of 82 countries and has killed more than 50,000 people.
So what do these markets have to do with the coronavirus outbreak and why does it originate in China?
A lot of the viruses that make us sick originate in animals. In fact, bats may be the original hosts of nasty viruses such as Ebola and Nipah that can have deadly effects on humans. In the case of the 2019 Coronavirus, there is some evidence that the virus went from a bat to a pangolin before infecting a human. While viruses are very good at jumping between species it is rare for a deadly one to make this journey all the way to humans. This is because it would need each host to encounter a new one at some point. That’s where the Huanan Market comes in. It’s a wet market where live animals are slaughtered and sold for consumption. Peter Li, an expert on Chinese animal trade, told the situation of the animals in the marketplace, “The cages are stacked one over another. Animals at the bottom are often soaked with all kinds of liquid. Animal excrement, plus, blood or whatever liquid they are receiving from the animals above.” That is exactly how a virus can jump from one animal to another. Eventually, this virus will reach humans if they come into contact or consume those animals. If the virus then spreads to other humans it causes an outbreak.
Wet-markets are scattered across the world but the ones in China are well known because they offer a wide variety of animals including donkeys, bats, rats, and foxes. Below is a sample image of a menu from a market in Wuhan that offers over 100 types of animals.
These animals are from all over the world and each one has the potential to carry its own viruses to the market. The reason why all of these animals are in the same market is because of a decision China made back in the 1970s. During this time, China was plagued with famine as the Chinese Communist regime which controlled all food production was failing to feed its people. On the verge of collapse, the government gave up its control and allowed private farming. While large companies were dominating the production of pork and poultry, smaller farmers turned to catching and raising wild animals. In 1988, the government made a decision that would change the scope of wildlife trade in China. They enacted the Wildlife Protection Law which protected people engaged in the utilization of wildlife resources. With that, the wildlife farming industry was born. Thus, these animals were sent into the wet markets for profit.
Eventually the inevitable happened, the SARS virus was ravaging the world leaving a lasting impact on our society. Scientists were able to trace the virus to a wet-market in China which led to the shutdown of the markets and eventual ban of wildlife farming. However, this ban didn’t last long as in 2004 China lifted the ban making wildlife farming legal again. With the coronavirus outbreak in 2019, China has once again closed down the markets. Organizations around the world have been urging China to make this ban permanent. Unless the Chinese government places a permanent end to wildlife farming, outbreaks like this one are bound to happen again.