'Wet markets' likely launched the coronavirus. Here's what you need to know

Most of the earliest COVID-19 cases trace back to one of these sites, but what are they and what do they sell?

By Dina Fine Maron
Published 16 Apr 2020, 10:14 BST
Wet markets, like this one in Macau, are found throughout Asia and sell fresh vegetables, fruit, ...

Wet markets, like this one in Macau, are found throughout Asia and sell fresh vegetables, fruit, seafood, and meat. Although most wet markets don’t sell wildlife, the terms “wet market” and “wildlife market” are often conflated.

Photograph by Anthony Kwan, Getty

Until earlier this year, most people had never heard of the term “wet market,” but the coronavirus pandemic has thrust it into the 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, according to Aron White, a China specialist at the Environmental Investigation Agency, a London-based nonprofit.

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 White, 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 March 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 savannahs of Africa, but it is widely used colloquially to refer to any wild animal meat.

Did China close its wet markets?

The conflation of “wet markets” and “wildlife markets” has caused confusion during the coronavirus pandemic, with some U.S. leaders making public calls for the closure of wet markets and lambasting China for continuing to allow them.

China never ordered the closure of its wet markets—they’re an important source of affordable food and a livelihood for many.

But on January 26, China did ban the trade and consumption of wild animals for food. And starting on January 1, the government temporarily closed the Huanan market, after it was identified as the likely source of many early cases of COVID-19. It remains closed, according to Xu Ling, director of the China office of TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring organisation.

Hunan Seafood Wholesale Market, which Chinese public health authorities say was the origin of most early cases of the novel coronavirus, was closed in early January. The market sold fresh produce and seafood, as well as wild animals that were slaughtered for meat. It has not been reopened.

Photograph by Hector Retamal, AFP, Getty

As lockdown restrictions have begun to ease in China, some of the country’s other wet markets are reportedly operating again—without wild animals and wild meat.

As of April 14, 2020, China has not banned the commercial sale of wild animals for pets, traditional medicine, or ornamental uses.

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. (Learn more about how this novel coronavirus may have jumped from animals to people.)

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 animls 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 harbour 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.

Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@natgeo.com.

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