While the whole story hasn’t been sorted out, it seems pretty clear that one or more animal species at the Wuhan Seafood Market (which sold much more than just aquatic animals) was the source of the novel coronavirus.
Just like SARS.
Once again, this has raised the profile of concerns about markets where diverse live animal species are sold to large crowds. In a few interviews lately I’ve been asked about the role of wildlife markets like this in disease. There’s not a good answer and it’s a hard question to answer because of the lack of information and some important cultural contexts that have to be considered.
One reporter asked whether illegal wildlife trade is a concern. Really, ‘legal’ or not probably doesn’t impact risks too much. Legal or illegal isn’t necessarily based on infectious disease risk, although illegal markets might mean less overall scrutiny, something that could make things a bit riskier.
Regardless, one question is “Do wildlife markets pose a risk?”. The answer clearly has to be ‘yes’.
Why? They bring lots of animals and lots of people together. When wildlife are involve, they bridge the gap between ‘wild’ and ‘us’. That’s a concern because there are many undiscovered infectious diseases lurking in wildlife. As we encroach more into previously wild areas and bring animals from those wild areas to our areas, we increase the risk of being exposed to something nasty that’s been hiding our peacefully in the wild animal population.
The harder question is “What should be done?”
The most logical answer, one that is easy to say from a distance, is ‘don’t allow them’. That would be ideal as it would reduce contact between large numbers of people and large number of animals, and contact between large numbers of different animal species. There are also animal welfare and conservation benefits. Yet, I’m not in a position to say ‘close them down’ because I don’t know the social, cultural and food access issues. I suspect these markets could be closed down with complaints but no major problems, but I’m old enough to know that first glances from a distance aren’t always right. We’ll see how things progress the ban of the wild animal trade that was put in place across China Sunday (will it be sustained, will it stop the trade or push it underground….).
Like most zoonotic disease issues, it’s a complex area that will likely defy a simple solution.