Coronavirus Tied to a “Wet” Market in Wuhan, China

Now Closed Wet Market in Wuhan, China        Photo: The Standard

The investigation into the origin of the scary, new virus that just made it to the U.S. is now centered on a “wet” market in China where Bloomberg News reports that the government is focusing on the sale of freshly slaughtered, unpackaged meat.  They have closed the market for now. Twenty years ago, it was the deadly SARS virus (which has been called a “cousin” of this new virus) that stemmed from such markets, and still today China is “ground zero” for the emergence of many dangerous new infections because such markets are cramped and filled with everything from live poultry to snakes.

Why This Matters:  Ironically, it is the crackdown on the illegal trade in endangered species that helped to make wet markets less “exotic” and thus avoid a repeat of the SARS virus of twenty years ago.  But today, food safety regulations are a key component of public health protection in the modern age of easy international travel and long food supply chains.  And the world is only as safe as the dirtiest wet market where new viruses spread from animals to humans and then can go literally viral.  It was scary when China lost a huge percentage of its pig population because lax food safety enforcement led to the uncontrollable spread of swine fever, as we reported earlier this month.  It will be far more tragic if the same thing happens to humans.

Why Chinese People Prefer Wet Markets

Like shopping at a “Farmer’s Market” here in the U.S., in China there is a preference for fresh meat from animals that aren’t properly quarantined or that have been caught in the wild, which “does make China susceptible to the risk of new virus outbreaks through close animal and human contact,” Wang Yuedan, a professor of immunology at Peking University’s School of Basic Medical Sciences, told Bloomberg News.  The sheer size of the country and the number of wet markets makes policing them difficult for the Chinese government.

The Timing Could Not Be Worse

What has alarmed epidemiologists is that now there is evidence the virus could be transmitted from human to human, making its spread more difficult to control. Since it is almost Chinese New Year, there is an upcoming week of holidays and many people travel long distances in cramped trains, planes, and automobiles — the perfect settings for a virus to spread among humans.  And people flock to wet markets this time of year to buy fresh meat for the lavish, banquet-style feasts to celebrate the start of the New Year.

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