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 and their products) was the source of the novel coronavirus. Just like SARS.
Once again, this has raised 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 also some important cultural contexts that have to be considered.
One reporter asked whether illegal wildlife trade is a concern. Really, “legal” or “illegal” probably doesn’t change the risks too much. Legal or illegal isn’t necessarily based on infectious disease risk, although illegal markets might mean less overall scrutiny, which could make things a bit more hazardous.
One question is, “Do wildlife markets pose a risk?”
The answer is clearly “yes.”
Why? These markets bring lots of animals and lots of people together. Wildlife in particular bridge the gap between “the wild” and the rest of “us.” That’s a concern because there are many undiscovered infectious diseases lurking in the wild. As we encroach more into previously wild areas and bring animals from those areas to areas where people live and work, we increase the risk of being exposed to something nasty that’s been hiding out peacefully in the wild animal population.
The harder question is, “What should be done about wildlife markets?”
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 numbers of animals, as well as 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, which can be different in each case. 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 with the ban of the wild animal trade that was put in place across China on Sunday, in terms of whether it will be sustained, and whether it will actually stop the trade or push it underground…
Like most zoonotic disease issues, this is a complex area that will likely defy a simple solution.