Where did coronavirus come from? 

The first cases of coronavirus (Covid-19) were reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019. The initial source of the virus is still unknown. However, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said that analysis of the virus shows that it most likely originated in bats. The WHO has said that the virus was probably transmitted to humans through an intermediate animal host—either a domesticated or wild animal species. 

The WHO has confirmed that some of the first cases of coronavirus were found in people who had visited the Huanan seafood wholesale market in Wuhan. The market was a so-called ‘wet market’, which sold fish, meat, and live animals from farmed and wild animal species. This has led to speculation that the market may have been the site of the initial transmission of coronavirus to humans.  

What are wet markets? 

Wet markets are found throughout the world, particularly in developing countries in Asia and Africa. They commonly consist of stalls, often in an open-air setting, which sell fresh fish, meat, and fruit and vegetables. They are called wet markets due to the practice of pouring water or ice onto the produce to keep it fresh, and to differentiate them from ‘dry’ markets that sell non-perishable and durable goods. The Wuhan seafood market reportedly had a live animal section, which sold “snakes, beavers, badgers, civet cats, foxes, peacocks and porcupines”, among other animals.  

Live animal markets have been criticised for their often unsanitary conditions, in which wild animals can be stored near farmed and domesticated animals. Markets in China, and in countries such as Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia, have also been criticised by animal rights groups (such as Animal Equality UK, the RSPCA and PETA) due to the conditions in which the animals can be stored and slaughtered. However, most wet markets in Asia do not sell exotic or wild animals and these should not be confused with bushmeat or live animal markets, which have been the subject of calls for a global ban. 

2006 WHO guide to food markets said that markets in the developing world had been the source of outbreaks of diseases such as cholera, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and bird influenza. However, they were also viewed as important sources of affordable food for many millions of people. 

What is being done to regulate live animal markets? 

In January 2020, authorities in China closed the Wuhan seafood market and imposed a temporary nationwide ban on the trade and consumption of wild animals. In February 2020, China made the ban permanent. The UK’s Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, told the House of Commons that the UK Government welcomed the ban and that it continued to cooperate with the international community on the issue of regulating wet markets. However, there have been reports that the ban in China is not being fully enforced

In March 2020, the WHO published hygiene recommendations for people visiting or working at animal markets. The recommendations advised “good personal hygiene, including frequent hand washing” and that eating “raw and undercooked” animal products from markets should be avoided.  

Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, has called for a global ban on live animal markets. However, she also cautioned against possible unintended consequences of a total ban. She said: 

We should also remember [that there are] communities, particularly from low-income rural areas, particularly in Africa, which are dependent on wild animals to sustain the livelihoods of millions of people. 

On 17 April 2020, the Director-General of the WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, “clarified” the organisation’s position on wet markets, stating that it was not in favour of a blanket ban. He told a press conference: 

I would like to clarify WHO’s position on wet markets. Wet markets […] are an important source of affordable food and livelihood for millions of people all over the world, but in many places they have been poorly regulated and poorly maintained. WHO’s position is that when these markets are allowed to reopen it should only be on the condition that they conform to stringent food safety and hygiene standards. Governments must rigorously enforce bans on the sale and trade of wildlife for food. 

On 21 April 2020, the BBC reported that the WHO was working with other UN bodies to develop further guidance on the safe operation of wet markets

What is the UK Government doing? 

The Government has said that the UK was “at the forefront” of international efforts to ensure global trade in wild animals was well regulated. This included through the UK’s participation in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The Government said that it had made representations to China to urge that the ban introduced in the country in February 2020 was “strictly enforced”. 

The Government has also set out how it would work with other international bodies in the future to help regulate wild animal markets: 

Once the immediate challenge presented by the virus has been overcome, we will be looking to make use of all relevant fora and opportunities to press for international action to avoid a repeat of this pandemic, including within the G7/G20, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), [and] CITES. The World Animal Health Organisation, of which the UK is a member, will be addressing wildlife trade at the next general session in October 2020. 

In a debate on the international response to Covid-19 in the House of Lords on 18 May 2020, Baroness Sugg, minister at the Foreign Office and Department for International Development, said the Government agreed with advice from the WHO that food markets should ensure strict food hygiene standards and that “markets should close if they are not met”.  

Image by Dan Bennett from Wikimedia.