In Depth

Coronavirus: why wildlife markets were a ‘recipe for disaster’

Growing calls for global ban on markets also linked to Sars and Ebola

Calls are growing for “wet markets” selling fresh meat and live animals to be banned amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Comedian and animal rights activist Ricky Gervais is among those calling for action, warning that if the consumption of wild animals continues “this will happen again”.

The Independent is launching a campaign to tighten worldwide restrictions on wildlife markets, while public health experts have long warned that live animal markets could be a “breeding ground for emerging infectious diseases” and a “recipe for disaster”. So just how dangerous are they?

Breeding ground

According to The Telegraph, the market in Wuhan, China, from which the coronavirus is believed to have originated has now been shut down.

However, the paper adds, buying food from so-called wet markets is popular in China “as consumers like to purchase their meat ‘warm’ – that is, recently slaughtered”. 

Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham, told the paper that it is “poor practice” to keep different species of animals in “cramped conditions and in close proximity, and then also to add humans into the mix”.

Ball said: “If you have a viral infected animal introduced into that they can first pass that virus among animals of their own species and amplify that infection. Second of all, they can pass it to other species which may act as an intermediary host and pass it more easily to humans.”

This was echoed by Dr Erica Bickerton, a coronavirus expert at the Pirbright Institute in the UK, who said: “If you have a lot of people and animals in one place viruses are better able to spread between those people and animals. A high population density or more contact between humans and animals will aid spread.”

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What is being done?

Former Conservative Party leader William Hague has called for the world to “act now” to stop another pandemic emerging from live animal markets. 

Writing in the The Telegraph, Hague notes that wet markets were shut down in China following the 2003 Sars outbreak. However, they were later reopened in what he describes as a “catastrophic mistake”.

“The world has been warned repeatedly about the consequences of wildlife markets… Now the bomb has exploded, there can be no excuse in any country for anything short of zero tolerance of these terrible habits,” Hague writes.

“Unless decisive action is taken around the world, humanity could face much worse threats in the future. US scientists working to predict pandemics have estimated that there are about 1.6 million undiscovered viruses in existence in wild animals and that about 700,000 of those could be transmitted to people.” 

The Independent reports that previous “zoonotic diseases”, those transmitted from animals to humans, have been linked to wildlife including HIV, Ebola, Sars, Mers and Zika.

The paper’s campaign asks that “governments work together to impose stricter controls on the trade, sale and consumption of wild animals”, and has been signed by United Nations biological diversity chief, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, and conservationist Jane Goodall.

In the United States, animal rights group Peta has also launched a campaign to close the “80 live-animal markets and slaughterhouses” it claims are operating in New York City.

Peta claims that in New York “stressed, injured, and sickly animals are often caged in areas with public access… where feces and blood can easily be tracked down sidewalks and into restaurants and homes”.

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