A third of the first 41 patients that were admitted to the hospital for symptoms of COVID-19, then an unknown and unnamed disease, had had an exposure to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, central China (Huang et al, 2020). Naturally, strong speculations were made that COVID-19 causing novel coronavirus might have emerged from this wet market (ibid.), that also sold wildlife illegally. It had ideal conditions for the novel mutation of the coronavirus (Evans, 2020): hygiene conditions were rudimentary at the very best (ibid.) and livestock animal protein was sold alongside wild animals such as pangolins, bats, snakes, civets providing perfect breeding ground for the novel pathogen (Evans, 2020; Cambell, 2020 and Markotter, 2020). The potential link of the Huanan Seafood Whole Market with the global outbreak of COVID-19 swiftly put wildlife trade in wet markets into the spotlight.
Contrary to the popular discourse that treats live wild animal markets synonymous to wet markets; nestled in partially open-complexes, wet markets typically sell ‘wet’ items such fruits, vegetables and domestic animal protein (Zhong, Crang & Zeng, 2019). These markets are a highly prevalent feature of the Global South due to several socio-economic factors. One of the reasons that has often been cited is the lack of access to refrigeration in poor urban settlements (Vidal, 2020; Fevre and Tacoli, 2020; Si, 2020 & Standaert, 2020) which reduces the practice of eating chilled meat (Standaert, 2020), a common practice in the Global North. The patrons of ‘fresh’ and ‘warm’ meat tasting better than frozen meat, further, flock to these markets regularly (Standaert, 2020; Zhong, Crang & Zeng, 2019). As such these wet markets provide valuable nutrition to urban communities and are essential to continued urban food security (Fevre & Tacoli, 2020). However, when the sanitary conditions of these markets are poorly regulated and there is an existence of parallel trade in wildlife, a serious risk is posed to public health.
If history can be the teacher, live animal markets serve as suitable platforms for transmission of zoonotic diseases to humans. The risk increases exponentially when wild animals sourced from different regions are forced to occupy the same spaces (Price, 2020 & Bell, 2020) in these already densely populated markets. These cross species interactions provide an ideal environment for zoonotic pathogens, such as coronaviruses, to cross-over between species (Bell, 2020). Furthermore, as these markets are frequented everyday by hundreds of people where animals are slaughtered and sold on site, the chance of pathogens jumping over to humans is imminent (Vidal, 2020).
In the case of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2002, civets were the intermediate hosts of coronavirus before the eventual spill-over to humans (Markotter, 2020). However, seventeen years later, civets are still very much in-demand and sold openly for meat, as pets and for the coffee beans plucked from their faeces. In an analytical study of 335 emerging infectious diseases that occurred between 1940-2004, it was found that over 60% were caused by zoonotic pathogens, with nearly 72% zoonotic EIDs caused by a pathogen with wildlife origins (Jones et al, 2008). While a heightened risk of disease transmission is presented by trade in live terrestrial animals, there are equally strong concerns of disease transmission along the entire supply chain-- right from capture to transport hubs to transportation to final destinations (Broad, 2020). Thus, the serious implications of unregulated wildlife trade on public-health cannot be overlooked.
In 2018, an annual review published by WHO mentioned a mysterious Disease X - an unknown pathogen with the potential of causing an international epidemic and a public health emergency. While today this Disease X is COVID-19 (Armstrong, Capon and McFarlane, 2020), with continued, unregulated wildlife trade, several such Disease X can occur.
Every year, thousands of species are taken from their natural habitats and brought into wildlife trade to be sold for their meat, parts and derivatives, or as pets (Wilcove, 2020). Natural barriers between humans and animals and their pathogens are removed as a result of global wildlife trade (Armstrong, Capon and McFarlane, 2020). Unregulated wet markets trading in wildlife risk becoming potential origins of zoonotic disease pandemics due to a heavy footfall of citizens, high interactions of humans with an array of species and lack of adequate sanitary measures (Vidal, 2020). As long as wildlife trade continues to go unregulated in these markets and across the entire supply chain, we will continue to sit on a nuclear bomb of pandemics that can adversely affect public health, environmental security and the global economy (WCS, 2020).
Another important aspect gathering an increasing amount of evidence linking it to the spread of zoonotic diseases is changing ecosystems caused deforestation, forest degradation, rapidly expanding infrastructure and the resultant fragmentation of natural habitats. These conditions have led to increased interactions between wildlife and humans as we encroach upon and alter wild habitats. One of the many negative results of this being an increased risk of pathogen spill over from wildlife hosts to humans by creating high-risk interface zones and high-risk activities that increase human-wildlife contact.
The key takeaway from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is that the way forward to safeguard the life of over seven billion people living on this planet is three-pronged: better regulation of sanitation standards in live animal markets and a complete shutdown of all commercial trade in wild animals across all channels of sale to reduce interactions where zoonotic pathogens can jump to humans, as well as safeguarding ecosystems and restoring wildlife habitats globally.
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By Gargi Sharma