Coronavirus – what is a Chinese wet market?

COVID-19, a deadly new coronavirus which spread dramatically from its initial epicentre – the city of Wuhan – put a spotlight on China’s poorly regulated wild animal trade.

While scientists are still researching the exact origin of the virus, it's no secret that infectious disease specialists have for decades been raising the alarm about the accelerated pace of outbreaks, including SARS, Dengue, Ebola and Zika. 

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What is a wet market?

Wet markets are a series of stalls that sell fresh vegetables and fruits, live fish, chickens and other meats.

They are named after the melting of ice used to preserve goods and the washing of floors to clean blood and entrails.

Reuters says they have come under closer scrutiny after the coronavirus pandemic was initially linked to a seafood market in Wuhan, China.

The deadly bug, called Covid-19, put a spotlight on the regime’s poorly regulated wild animal trade – driven by relentless demand for exotic delicacies and ingredients for traditional medicine.

China’s markets, where wild and often poached animals are packed together, have been described as a breeding ground for disease and an incubator for a multitude of viruses to evolve and jump the species barrier to humans, the news agency adds.

After hundreds of people were quickly infected by the new virus, authorities said it appeared to have emerged from illegally traded wildlife in a seafood market in the central Chinese city.

Back in January, Gao Fu, director of China Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told a briefing: “The origin of the new coronavirus is the wildlife sold illegally in a Wuhan seafood market.” 

That market was shut down, and authorities said they would ban illegal wildlife trade and tighten supervision of wet markets.

Conservationists and health experts have long denounced the trade in wildlife for its impact on biodiversity and the potential for spreading disease in markets.

“The animal welfare part of this is obvious.

"But much more hidden is this stashing and mixing of all these species together in a very small area, with secretions and urine mixed up together,” warned Christian Walzer, executive director of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society.

However, Pavida Pananond, associate professor of international business at Thammasat University in Bangkok, pointed out last month: “Wet markets are part of the local culture in Asia, as people believe that meat and produce sold there is fresher and cheaper than in modern retail outlets."

The 2002-03 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which started in China and killed about 800 people, was believed to have emerged from wet markets.

These traditional markets are a lifeline for millions of small farmers, vendors and small businesses, said Pavida.

She added: “It will be difficult to completely replace them as they serve consumers at the lower end of purchasing power, not to mention their cultural preference."

And several months on, scientists studying the origins of the bug are still not 100 per cent certain as to where – and how – exactly the disease began.

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