Coronavirus: Inside China’s ‘wet markets’ where more killer diseases could erupt

The death march of the coronavirus shows no sign of slowing down, having killed thousands and forcing countries to go into complete lockdown.

Since appearing in China in December, the deadly disease has tainted all continents – except Antarctica – and has forced governments to take extreme measures to contain its spread.

But, it is not the first killer virus to leave thousands dead in its wake – and it probably won’t be the last.

For decades, diseases have sprung out from particular hotspots with alarming reliability and the source often is China.

The communist nation is home to 1.4 billion people and many buy their meat in sickly so-called “wet markets”.

In the foul-smelling markets, exotic animals and livestock mix being stacked on top of each other in cages – and it’s there new viruses breed and are transmitted to humans. With deadly consequences.

But that isn’t the whole story of how wet market viruses are born.

The wet markets are ticking time bombs for disease for two reasons, mainly. First, they bring together animals that do not naturally meet in the wild and, secondly, the often disgusting conditions they are kept in.

Chinese authorities quickly shut down Huanan Market in Wuhan shortly after officials realised the coronavirus was infecting hordes of people in the mega city roughly the size of London.

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But it wasn’t enough.

Within days the virus infected thousands in the city and the virus went on to rapidly spread across the globe with such ease that it is now devastating Italy, a country more than 5,000 miles away.

Peter Li, associate professor of East Asian Politics, at the University of Houston-Downtown, told Daily Star Online each of the supply chains supplying wet markets needed to be smashed to prevent disease from spreading again.

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He added: “Banning wildlife wet markets is an important move.

“But it is not enough. In China, the wildlife trade is a business that is composed of breeding, illegal hunting, hoarding – as in, collecting enough of them to transport.

“In addition to that, long-distance shipping, wet market sale and slaughter and processing in restaurants and roadside food stands.

“Each one of these links must be broken to be effective.”

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To understand how Huanan Market help spread the disease, you need to look at what was being sold there.

Exotic animals – from crocodiles to wolf puppies – were kept in “unsanitary” conditions, with cages and stalls close together or stacked on one another where live animals were held near dead ones.

They were then slaughtered and skinned on site with the New York Times describing the conditions as “dismal with poor ventilation and garbage piled on wet floors”.

At its height, there were 120 wildlife animals across 75 species being sold at the market meaning it was a haven for viruses to jump from one creature to another before making the leap to humans – and that’s what happened.

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Scientists believe the virus could be traced to pangolins – an anteater-like beast – that was sold at the market, although the mystery is far from solved.

But, coronavirus is not the only disease to emerge from filthy wet markets. In 2002, the world was gripped with terror by a new virus that had sprung up in southern China – SARS.

SARS, like coronavirus, attacks the respiratory system. Although, unlike coronavirus which has an estimated 1% fatality rate worldwide, SARS killed one in 10 people.

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When experts raced to find the epicentre of the virus they weren’t surprised – it was a wet market.

While it is uncertain which animal sparked the epidemic, the World Health Organisation said it could have originated in “perhaps bats, that spread to other animals (civet cats) and first infected humans in the Guangdong area of China in 2002.

But exotic animals don’t typically make up the Chinese staple diet, which is heavily skewed towards pork, chicken and foods not uncommon in many other countries.

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There is, however, a dark underside. There has been a small minority in China who eat exotic and other animals – dog is the most ill-regarded food seen on menus in China.

Peter Li previously explained there has been a wildlife-eating subculture in southern China and that eating these exotic animals became something of a status symbol.

These “luxury items” are believed to grant muscle growth, improve health and enhance sexual stamina and are typically bought by the wealthy.

Of course, none of these claims “hold water”, Peter Li said.

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He continued to tell Daily Star Online: "The trade has been fuelled by government policies to fight poverty.

"The industry is a source of income for the most disadvantaged rural workers. It has also been fuelled by greed of the big owners of the wildlife trade and industry.

"The demand for wildlife animals for food or for medicine is mostly created and promoted by the traders, restaurant owners, pharmaceutical companies and wildlife breeders, the business interest group."

Dr Li added: "Restaurants purchase most of the exotic animals, captive bred or wild caught to serve the wealthy and the powerful.

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"Typically, people do not buy snakes and pangolins and cook at home. Wildlife is not part of the mainstream Chinese food culture."

Until recently, China’s communist leaders did not want to alienate this group of powerful donors who prop up its rulers.

These ties didn’t stop the government introducing a ban on wet markets shortly after the crisis began – although it is to be seen whether the move is permanent or not.

But, if the wet markets are not shut down or heavily regulated new diseases will keep emerging from China.

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