Wet markets? Here’s what you need to know
Until earlier this year, most people had never heard of the term “wet market,” but the coronavirus pandemic has thrust it into limelight. A wet market in Wuhan, China, called the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, is believed to be the source of COVID-19. Somewhat akin to farmer’s markets and found around the world, wet markets are typically large collections of open-air stalls selling fresh seafood, meat, fruits, and vegetables. Some wet markets sell and slaughter live animals on site, including chickens, fish, and shellfish. In China, they’re a staple of daily life for many. More rarely, wet markets also sell wild animals and their meat. The Huanan market, for example, had a wild animal section where live and slaughtered species were for sale: snakes, beavers, porcupines, and baby crocodiles, among other animals.
Why “wet” markets? One explanation has to do with the liquid in these places: live fish splashing in tubs of water, melting ice keeping meat cold, the blood and innards of slaughtered animals. Another is simply that they deal in perishable goods (thus wet) instead of dry, durable goods. What’s the difference between a wet market and a wildlife market? Although most wet markets don’t sell live wild animals, the terms “wet market” and “wildlife market” are often conflated. Wildlife markets, also found worldwide, specifically sell wild animals for meat or as pets. The markets themselves may be legal, though they sometimes offer illegal species alongside permitted ones. It’s unknown how many wildlife markets there are in China and elsewhere, and according to experts, much of the trade in wildlife is now conducted online, making it even more difficult to track. Support for the closure of unregulated wildlife markets across Southeast Asia is widespread, according to a poll commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund and made public on April 7. In a survey of about 5,000 people in Hong Kong, Japan, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam, 93 percent of participants supported government taking action to eliminate illegal and unregulated markets. Wild animal meat—bushmeat—is sold at local markets in many settings, including throughout India, Latin America, and Africa. Strictly, the term refers to the remains of animals caught in the forests and savannas of Africa, but it is widely used colloquially to refer to any wild animal meat.
How wild animals used for food can lead to disease? Close interactions with wild animals have caused numerous disease outbreaks in humans, including Ebola and HIV. Buying, selling, and slaughtering wild animals for food is one way an animal-borne disease may infect people. Viruses can spread more easily if animals in markets are sick or kept in dirty, cramped conditions, such as in stacked cages. When animals are under duress, viral pathogens can intermingle, swap bits of their genetic code, and perhaps mutate in ways that make them more transmissible between species. In the case of respiratory diseases, such as COVID-19, the virus can jump to food handlers or customers through exposure to an animal’s bodily fluids. Other forms of wildlife trade can be risky too, including the exotic pet industry and tapping animals or their parts for traditional medicine or ornamental uses, such as rugs or carvings. Animals used for those purposes may harbor viruses that can sicken preparers and customers. In August 2007, for example, a drum maker and his child in Connecticut both became ill with anthrax after his home and workplace became contaminated by a goatskin imported from Guinea. Apparently, it carried naturally occurring anthrax spores. People also can get sick from having wild animal pets such as turtles, which may carry salmonella. Professor Clive Phillips, from the University of Queensland’s Centre for Animal Welfare and Ethics, says while there’s nothing necessarily bad about wet markets, only that some have returned to selling wildlife. And that can be a problem! “They're usually not domesticated species so they're highly stressed by being kept in captivity, by being caged, so I think we are asking for trouble if we farm these animals and then sell them. When the animals are stressed and the hygiene isn't good, it's more likely to be contaminated,” he says. He says domestic animals bred for eating (say, for example, cattle and sheep) are much more willing to tolerate a human presence. Animals like pangolins, one of the theorised links between humans and this pandemic, are not. “The pangolins are reared in individual cages, they are very definitely wildlife. They would not have any of the genes which encourage them to tolerate the presence of humans and the caging process,” he says.
So, what is happening in China? When the world is still striving on ventilators, struggling for masks and basic medical supplies, Chinese are back on the roads prepping up for the next viral bomb. These “wet markets” selling live animals like cats, dogs and bats have reopened in several regions in China, according to several reports. While bats are believed to be the primary source of the novel coronavirus, researchers believe that an intermediate host might have carried it to humans. From these bats to rare Pangolins -- these markets, notorious for being unhygienic and cruel to animals, have it all. Following the coronavirus outbreak, temporarily, the Chinese wet markets were put on a halt. It was being anticipated that the business would become a thing of past after the catastrophic loss of life China itself faced due to coronavirus. But soon after six consecutive virus-free days in China, closure of wet markets was terminated and the Chinese are back with their shopping bags in the times of a full-blown pandemic. The wet food markets of Wuhan are from where the deadly spread had fumed. A similar spread stained mainland China, in the year 2002 SARS epidemic too had its origins from the Chinese wet markets. This had affected 29 countries and killed more than 800 people from all over the world. World Health Organisation, in one of its reports in 2007, stated the possibility of the Chinese wet markets to be a ‘time bomb’ for a remarkable future pandemic. The virus exported out of China, statistically has infected more people in the US, Italy and Spain, bankrupting many global giants on the way – and crippling the global economy at par with the levels of World War-II. Thereafter, as soon as the news of reopening of Chinese wet markets broke, netizens across the world fumed over Chinese retrieval of such dangerous culinary practices.