Wet Market Terror
An HCMF Special Newsletter on Covid-19 : The author urges that wet animal markets be permanently closed down because the next virus could pose an even greater existential threat.
In December 2019, the world was hit with an unprecedented deadly virus known as “nCoV-2019”, a name picked by Chinese scientists who identified the virus as, “novel coronavirus of 2019”. WHO gave it the name COVID-19. It was a Chinese whistle blower, Dr. Li Wenliang, who first alerted the world about this new virus, was hounded by the Chinese government and unfortunately, caught the infection and died from it in February 2020 at the age of 33. Posthumously he was considered a martyr. Oxford University researchers have, from their studies, enforced the bat origin of the infection. The most prominent view appears to be that the virus most likely originated in bats and was passed on to humans through an intermediary specie from a wet market — the Huanan Seafood Market — in the Chinese city of Wuhan, a city larger than New York. Wuhan is a major industrial hub and an integral part of the global supply chain.
Bats, pangolins and possibly civets are reservoirs of this virus. Scientists believe that the intermediary host may well have been the pangolin, a scaly ant-eater. Pangolins are the world’s only truly, scaly mammals, with overlapping scales made of keratin. There are eight species of pangolins in Asia and Africa. Experts estimate that the Chinese pangolin is nearly extinct and that the Indian pangolin population has shrunk by 50%. Pangolins are possibly the most trafficked wild mammal in the world as they are consumed either for their meat or the use of their scales. Across South East Asia and China, pangolin meat is seen as a status symbol and people believe that the scales can cure ailments like rheumatism, skin disorders and infertility.
A wet market is a live, open-air animal market which sells, dead and living wild and sea animals — where different animals are brought live and slaughtered on the spot for customers. A typical wet market will sell live mammals, poultry, fish and reptiles crammed together, sharing their blood and excrement and are known for lack of hygiene. There is a lot of commingling of species: traditional livestock from farms; wild animals from wildlife farming; illegally traded, poached wild species from different countries; and, land and sea species. These markets place species, that would never normally mix in the wild, side by side. There is a lot of melting ice, the blood of slaughtered animals, gutted fish and chicken guts. This is a deadly combination. These wet markets exist in many Asian countries, like China, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. Many biologists have opined that the stress of captivity in these chaotic markets weakens the immune system in the animals and creates an environment where viruses from different species can mix and/ or jump from one specie to another, resulting in a new strain of the animal virus which gains a foothold in humans. This is like creating a superhighway for viruses to go from the wild into humans, leading to “zoonotic diseases” — diseases that jump from animals to humans.
The use of wild animals in China runs deep, not just for food but also for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and is a significant driver of the billion-dollar wild animal industry. It doesn’t help that Beijing has strongly promoted the use of TCM. Folklore and superstitions abound in every culture but the custom of eating specific wild animals as a cure for ailments and enhancement of sexual performance or beauty and fertility, plays a major role in TCM. For example, it is believed that eating bats can prevent cancer and is good for restoring eyesight; and, bile and gall bladders of live bears are good for treating jaundice. None of this has any scientific backing.
Many species that are used in TCM are also eaten as food in parts of China. The line between animals used for meat and those used for medicines is very fine, as the Chinese generally consider eating animals for perceived health benefits. For example, both bears and snakes are used for food and medicine. Wild animal farming has a long history in China. This practice, which began as subsistence farming for the rural poor, has now developed into a burgeoning industry – supplying wild animals not only for consumption, often through the wet markets, but also as magic ingredients for TCM.
The world is far more interconnected and globalized than ever before. We are a globalized society. China is now at the center of this global network with 16% of global GDP, up from 4% during SARS (KPMG report-2020). COVID-19 has spread globally and it is a pandemic of epic proportions. It has metamorphosed into an economic crisis the likes of which the global economy has not seen in over 100 years.
Many economies are facing the prospects of depression, joblessness, contraction, and bankruptcy. The WHO has called this a zoonotic disease and labelled the crisis as a global health emergency. Even China has recognized this as the worst public health disaster in modern Chinese history. According to the Asian Development Bank, the global cost of this pandemic could top USD 4 Trillion. We have so far enjoyed the benefits of globalization but not understood the hidden gigantic risks. Real risks — the non-natural risks are self-orchestrated and can be existential, just as the nuclear weapons became an existential threat for the post-1945 generation (Dr. Toby Ord, Senior Research Fellow, Oxford). Going forward, the wet market virus pandemic may well be an existential threat for the post-COVID-19 generation.
Post COVID-19, the economic crisis will lead to many new norms, including an expected shift towards localization of supply chains (KPMG report-2020), but the health crisis will lead to a warning shot, a red alert, signaling the dangers of wet animal markets. At the moment many fingers are being pointed at the wet animal market at Wuhan as the source. The SARS epidemic in 2003 also appeared to have had its origin in wild animals in a wet market, again in China. It is very unlikely that China will permit free access to relevant data given its authoritarian structure and that we will ever reach a 100% scientifically-based conclusion. However, the firm belief that this virus emerged from wildlife is enough to demand that wet animal markets be permanently closed. Even Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top USA expert on infectious diseases has stated that we must shut down the so-called wet markets.
WWF has estimated the illegal wildlife trade at USD 20 billion per year. This epic coronavirus health pandemic must serve as an urgent wake-up call to terminate the use of endangered wild animals for food and for their perceived medicinal value – to once and for all truly end wildlife trade and consumption.
The views expressed in this article are essentially of the author’s and Saevus magazine cannot be held responsible for the same. In case of any clarification or objection, the author may be contacted directly.
This article was published in the September 2020 edition of Saevus Magazine.
Image credit for all images goes to Dhritiman Mukherjee.