Posted on: May 12, 2020 at 4:30 pm

Until the novel coronavirus pandemic hit, most people in North America had likely never heard of a wet market. In many places in Asia, India, Africa, and South America, however, these wet markets, also referred to as live animal markets, are common, and are a critical source of food for thousands of people.

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Scientists have traced the COVID-19 outbreak back to one of these markets in Wuhan, China, and believe that it played a significant role in the emergence and spread of the virus from bats via pangolins [1].

Because of this, there has been an international call for markets like these to be banned around the world. 

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Wet Markets: A Public Health Risk

In early April, the World Health Organization (WHO) publicly urged China to close its wet markets. This was prompted by concerns that environments in which humans and animals come into close contact pose a public health risk [2].

Despite this, wet markets began reopening in China as the country began lifting lockdown restrictions. 

Dr. David Nabarro, a WHO special envoy on Covid-19 and special representative of the United Nations secretary-general for food security and nutrition, spoke on behalf of the organization, asking governments and individuals to respect the fact that there are innumerable viruses found within the animal kingdom that could infect humans. 

“75 percent of emerging infections come from the animal kingdom. It’s partly the markets, but it’s also other places where humans and animals are in close contact.” [2]

These wet markets, while not solely responsible for the spread of disease, provide an easy opportunity for viruses to jump from animals to humans. Nabarro says we need to ensure that we are not creating easy pathways for viral spread. 

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Read: Theory: Evidence Suggests Pangolins May Have Passed Coronavirus From Bats to Humans

Wet Market Vs. Wildlife Market

Since the debate over wet markets has come into the limelight, there has been some confusion surrounding what exactly a wet market is, and what the difference between a “wet” or “live” market, and a “wildlife market”. While these terms have been used somewhat interchangeably, they are not the same thing.

Wet markets are similar to farmers’ markets that are common in North America and Europe, however, instead of being mostly limited to fresh fruits and vegetables, these open-air markets also sell fresh seafood and meat. Some markets will sell and slaughter live animals on-site, including chickens, fish, and shellfish [3].

The term “wet” comes from the practice of sellers sloshing water on produce to keep it cool and fresh. From a North American perspective, these places appear to be unsanitary, however, in most cases the only living animals that are sold are fish that are swimming in tanks [4].

There are, however, some markets that also sell and slaughter wild animals. These are rarer but could include snakes, beavers, porcupines, and baby crocodiles, among others. Wildlife markets may be legal, but they may sometimes offer illegal species alongside legal ones.

It is important to make the distinction between wet markets and wildlife markets. Countries around the world have been criticizing China for keeping wet markets open, however, it is the wildlife markets that are the true target. 

On January 26, the Chinese government banned the trade and consumption of wild animals for food, and the Huanan market, where the virus was thought to have originated, has remained closed since January first [3].

Read: Antibodies that prevent COVID-19 virus from infecting human cells have been identified by scientists

The WHO Retracts Its Call for a Ban

There are many who argue that the call for a ban on these wet markets comes from a lack of understanding and cultural prejudice. Kartini Samon, a Jakarta-based campaigner with the nonprofit Grain who has studied wet markets in the region, says that the call for a ban comes from cultural differences.

“Wet markets are very common and have a long history in many places in Asia,” she said [4].

One month after its initial call to ban these markets, the WHO has changed its recommendations. Peter Ben Embarek, a WHO food safety, and animal disease scientist, says that while wet markets may pose a greater risk, they are an important food source and are critical to the livelihoods of millions of people.

“Food safety in these environments is rather difficult and therefore it’s not surprising that sometimes we also have these events happening within markets,” Dr Embarek said [1].

He says that we should work on improving them rather than getting rid of them, by improving hygiene and food safety standards.

“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,” said Director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus [1].

He added, however, that governments must enforce strict bans on the sale and trade of wildlife for food. 

Steps to Prevent Future Outbreaks

Dr. Embareck says that it remains unclear as to whether or not the virus originated at the market in Wuhan, or if the market simply spread it further. Since the outbreak began, studies have found several susceptible species, including cats, tigers, ferrets, and dogs, and Embareck believes that identifying vulnerable species will allow us to put measures in place to prevent future outbreaks.

“We don’t want to create a new reservoir in animals that could continue to create infections in humans.” [1]

Debbie Banks, head of the tiger campaign at the Environmental Investigation Agency, argues that simply banning the sale and slaughter of wildlife at markets is not enough to prevent future disease outbreaks.

“In some countries, wildlife is commercially harvested and commercially farmed and transported direct to restaurants, consumed at private banquets, and used in traditional medicine, so there is a need to address demand and other retail venues besides wet markets,” she said [4].

Many experts agree with Embareck that the regulatory environment that allowed wild animals to be traded at the Wuhan market is the real problem, not the markets themselves. These markets are necessary for the survival of many people around the world, and more needs to be done to address their general sanitation and hygiene. 

Dirk Pfeiffer, chair professor at City University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Life Sciences in Hong Kong, says that means setting standards and enacting strict enforcement measures against practices that could promote the transmission of disease.

“[That] is more sensible than shutting them down, which won’t be consistently enforceable,” he argues [4].

He agrees that these wet markets pose a risk in terms of food safety standards, however, he believes that those problems can be fixed through regulation and increased awareness among consumers and traders.

“We need to focus on changing the demand, because as long as that is there it will be a way for people to trade in wild animals and their products.” [4]

Keep Reading: Say Goodbye To Boneless Chicken? Crisis Hits Meat Industry

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Brittany Hambleton
Team Writer
Brittany is a freelance writer and editor with a Bachelor of Science in Foods and Nutrition and a writer’s certificate from the University of Western Ontario. She enjoyed a stint as a personal trainer and is an avid runner. Brittany loves to combine running and traveling, and has run numerous races across North America and Europe. She also loves chocolate more than anything else… the darker, the better!

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