Why China must relook its wet markets

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Updated: April 4, 2020 9:23:54 AM

It must ban unhygienic storage/slaughtering and sale of unconventional meats, or close these down.

Wuhan Wet market (File Image: Reuters)

The zoonotic origin of Covid-19—researchers trace the SARS CoV-2 to bats and pangolins (the latter as intermediate reservoirs)—suggests a strong likelihood of the current pandemic having emerged in the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, a ‘wet market’ in Wuhan, in China’s Hubei province. Indeed, as many as 33 of 585 environmental samples obtained from the market carried evidence of SARS CoV-2, as per the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

So, it is outrageous that China should have allowed wet markets—where, along with farm perishables, many domesticated and wild species of animals, ranging from fish to bamboo-rats, civets, bats, etc, are stored, butchered and sold to consumers in the most unhygienic condictions—to open even as the global death toll from the pandemic has crossed 40,000, and shows little sign of slowing. Even though media coverage regarding this is largely based on a report by The Mail on Sunday, which talks of these markets having “gone back to operating the same way as they did before the coronavirus”, and says that there are guards stationed to ensure nobody can take pictures, the global community must put pressure on China to, at the very least, regulate these markets to ensure hygiene, and ban the trade in animals, especially wildlife, that are known reservoirs of deadlly pathogens, or are likely to facilitate an easier zoonotic spillover event.

In the recent past, at least two major outbreaks of epidemics have been linked to animal/meat trade in China—the 2002/2003 SARS outbreak (likely sources bats or civets), and the 2013 H7N9 avian flu. The demand in China for unconventional meats and animal parts—pangolin scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM)—is at odds not only with biodiversity but also with larger health and economic well-being of the rest of the world. Even this demand, as National Geographic reports, could be from a niche market in the country. A dietary preference for exotic meat is a “cultural outlier” for many Chinese, and seems specific to certain pockets of the population. Against such a backdrop, the world asking China to act shouldn’t be seen as cultural imposition.

That is, unless TCM is brought into the picture. The Chinese government seems to recognise there is a larger health concern, as searing editorials in the state-backed China Daily advocating bans on wildlife and exotic meat trade, and the fact that the Chinese government seems to be deliberately allowing a public campaign against such trade to gain ground, would seem to suggest. Authorities in Shenzhen have even banned the consumption of cat and dog meat (though their consumption is rare, as per a BBC report). But, this would mean little until the Chinese government—which has adopted a national strategy, as per a South China Morning Post report, for TCM development—turns away from wanting to popularise TCM globally, to capture a share of the global medicine market.

Even though 16.1% of the 1.57 million adverse drug reaction and incidents in 2017 were related to TCM, the government still allows the breeding of 54 wildlife species in likely unregulated farms, largely for TCM usage—this has also spun a network of illegal poaching and cross-border wildlife trade, with a savage cost for biodiversity. This is not to say that China should take a summary anti-TCM approach, but there is a need for it to act against the parts of it doing more harm than good.

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