Wet markets: Is a blanket ban the best solution to prevent future pandemics?

Carys Furnell- Guest Writer

The outbreak of COVID-19 has governed every-day life since its media-debut in December 2019, and declaration as a pandemic by the World Health Organisation on the 11th March 2020.  As a ‘zoonotic’ disease, the coronavirus strain was able to pass from a vertebrate animal to humans. It still remains unconfirmed just how the virus successfully made the jump, but fingers are being pointed at the humble pangolin. 

Currently, the scientific community speculate that although the virus originated in horseshoe bats, it was only able to infect human populations using the pangolin as an intermediate host – commonly found in the wet markets of Wuhan, China, where the outbreak originated. These wet markets uphold regional Asian culture and lifestyles, being akin to a Westerner popping to their local farm-shop. However, global attention has shifted towards them, with a light shining on wet markets as a monster emerging from the shadows of global conservation and health. These large areas of open-air stalls sell and slaughter live animals on site, ranging from the mundane fruit and vegetables, chicken and shellfish to, in some cases, wild snakes, crocodiles and porcupines. Given that pangolin scales remain a traditional medicine in Chinese culture, it is unsurprising that pangolins are found on the wild animal stalls. 

It is not the purpose of these wet markets to represent a conservationist’s nightmare, as they are an important source of affordable food and livelihood for a large majority. In many places, these markets remain poorly regulated and maintained, particularly overlooking sanitation and illegal trade items. So many exist without government awareness and therefore standards that it currently remains unknown how many wet markets are operating across China. This poses a great threat to public health because such a widely uncontrolled operation would create the perfect conditions for new and evolved host-parasite interactions (as in the case of COVID-19). Close human-human and human-animal contact, unsanitary conditions and wild animals create ideal circumstances for a novel zoonotic disease – and with 70% of all emerging diseases coming from zoonotic origins, it’s an easy place to bet money on a zoonoses’ origin. Similar close interactions with wild animals were responsible for previous disease outbreaks, including Ebola and HIV in our lifetimes. 

But now coronavirus is in full force, what kind of response can be expected in terms of wildlife trade and markets, to prevent future zoonotic outbreaks? Firstly, China has banned the trade and consumption of wild animals for food, but there is controversy over how effectively this is being reinforced. A temporary ban was also introduced in China during the SARS outbreak of 2002, where wild-animal markets were also the suspect of the virus. Both have the same origin, and both have created a global pandemic of a severe respiratory disease, so will a blanket ban be introduced? It is unlikely. They provide a huge socioeconomic contribution, and illegal trade deviates across the country, thus a blanket ban would discredit those following regulations. It would be unwarranted to detriment a majority of the population, when the illegal activity would only be pushed underground, as is already being exhibited in the global trading of pangolin scales. Moreover, as seen in the illegal trading of ivory, public perception deems the “frontmen” as the villains of the trade, calling for the poachers and, in the case of COVID-19, stall-holders to be punished. However, they have become entangled in the web of organised crime, usually painting a much bigger picture than the individual seen selling the animal products, who are trying to make their income in a harsh economy. Of course this doesn’t justify their involvement, but should be used to recognise that, just like trying to take out a weed, you have to destroy the root to prevent it re-emerging. In the case of illegal animal trade, the root remains as rich buyers creating a demand for products and bankrolling the operations in the first place, that then allows it to branch out into commonplace society. Furthermore, the commercial sale of wild animals for pets, traditional medicine and ornamental use has never been banned in China, which represents the same threat for zoonoses origin as the wild-animal markets.  

Upon reviewing pre-COVID wildlife trading laws, it is explanatory of China having the world’s largest illegal wildlife trade. Loopholes and exceptions are copious, with many illegal trades being protected under the umbrella of wildlife trade for domestication or breeding, allowing for over 50 kinds of wild land animals to be raised commonly on farms. China does also protect wild animals based on a classification system of its extinction threat and ecological, scientific or social importance, with reviews by the State Council every 5 years, however enforcement of this is facing scrutiny and claims of corruption. The blanket bans that are heavily called upon by the West won’t represent a permanent solution to zoonoses outbreaks for multiple reasons: not all wet markets are also wildlife markets; it is not the singular source of zoonoses origin in Asia, and so many cultural practises involve wildlife that making it illegal won’t dissuade those most intent to gain a short-term pay-out from the troubling trade. There are a lot of opinions being shouted at China from the rest of the globe, but due diligence is necessary to prevent future biosecurity threats. Country-wide standards and regulations would prove more efficacious, alongside extensive monitoring and learning, and support for those dependent on this trade for their livelihoods. Evolutionarily, the domestication of animals such as poultry has decreased (but not eradicated) zoonoses spread as our bodies adapted to this lifestyle. However, wild animals have evolved at arm’s length from us in comparison to those we have domesticated (e.g. cattle). Thus, we have not evolved biological defences to respond should a virus that would commonly infect a wild animal see an opportunity to benefit off our immune naivety. It is often mistaken that animal ecosystems are disassociated with human’s ecosystems, but we do not exist in our own superior bubble. The reality has always been that our individual ecosystems interact and connect, much like the fitting together of individual jigsaw pieces to form one larger depiction. Understanding and recognising these interactions is vital to public health and preservation of biodiversity. Human activity influences the animal kingdom, and vice versa – it is not a one-way system that we rule. 

Considering our futures globally, with urbanisation and a growing human population, our proximity with wild animals won’t be decreasing anytime soon, and the current global wildlife trade will continue to drive extinction and zoonotic disease transmission. The COVID-19 outbreak presents the opportunity to address the ever-overlooked wildlife trade and its implications, not only for public health but for ecosystem health too. Although the harmful wildlife trading currently in China has impacted on a global scale, the reasoning of the West for banning wet markets altogether must not be reflective of cultural differences (i.e. not meeting our “western norms”), alongside the ignorance of wet markets as exclusive sellers of illegal wildlife, but also a diverse selling place of fresh goods. Only when wildlife are introduced does it become a biosecurity threat, and this is prudent to prevent future health risks. China’s extensive wildlife trade predisposed it to zoonotic outbreak, with SARS and COVID-19 being exemplar of this. However, blame shouldn’t be exclusive to China, and every country should utilise this opportunity to scrutinise its own wildlife trade operations with consideration of the implications of outright bans. Understanding the underlying disease ecology and increasing public education to make more informed choices will be an important step in preventing further public health scares, without forgoing conservation concerns. 





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