The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in the city of Wuhan in China may have seemed like any other seafood markets selling fish, crabs and shrimps. Yet in a segment of the sprawling market with its 1,000 stalls a variety of wild animals were also on sale.
And that’s where the trouble started.
The wet market has been pinpointed as the site where a previously unknown and highly infectious coronavirus originated, infecting thousands of people and causing numerous deaths. Just as the pandemic caused by SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, in 2002-2003, the current outbreak, too, has been traced to the handling and consumption of wild animals, most likely bats.
“The outbreak concentrated in two districts in Wuhan, where there are big seafood markets,” said Zhong Nanshan, director of the China State Key Laboratory of Respiratory Disease. “While they are called seafood markets, many vendors are selling game. According to preliminary epidemiological analysis, the virus is probably transmitted from wildlife [at the markets] to humans,” she added.
Before the market was shut down at the end of last December after several local workers came down with pneumonia, various live wild animals were sold for food on the site. They included peacocks, baby crocodiles, snakes, bamboo rats, civet cats, wolf pups and foxes. Many of the animals on sale came from endangered species and with hefty price tags.
SARS, an airborne virus which infected more than 8,000 people and caused almost 800 deaths worldwide, likewise had its ground zero at a wildlife market, in Guangdong province in southern China. The SARS virus originated in bats, as has (likely) the new coronavirus. Bats are the carriers of a host of pathogens, to which they themselves are largely immune.
“This is a wildlife-origin virus — it’s pretty clear,” said Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit investigating wildlife-related viruses in China. “Probably bats are the origin from looking at the virus itself, and it got from bats into people in the wildlife market. This is absolutely déjà vu all over again from SARS.”
The outbreak of SARS, an airborne virus that spread with ease among people, caused Beijing to issue a ban in 2003 on the sale of wild animals for food. However, that welcome state of affairs did not last. The consumption of wild animals soon became common across China again as if nothing had happened.
Wild animals are rarely consumed for the nutritional value of their meat, which does not exceed that of meat from farmed animals. Rather, locals continue to think that consuming wildlife accords status to people who dine on it.
Eating wild animals in the country is believed to have deep roots in Chinese culture. Exotic species such as pangolins and tigers, both of which are now critically endangered largely as a result for continued demand for them in China and Vietnam, are believed to have curative benefits.
Yet old beliefs in the medicinal worth of animal parts from exotic wildlife have been misplaced, experts stress. “These foods don’t have the mystic properties claimed. Comparing the nutritional values of domestic fowl and livestock with wild animals we found identical quantities of protein, carbohydrates, fats and other nutrients,” said Zheng Jianxian, a food scientist at South China University of Technology.
“There is no special nutritional value or particular benefit. And even if there are some minor differences, these are nowhere near as significant as people think,” the expert added.
The consumption of wild species was widespread until the nation was hit by the latest outbreak of a new coronavirus. Experts hope that what with the latest scare of a rampaging deadly disease across much of the country Chinese people who like dining on wild animals have finally learned their lesson once and for all.
“The simplest way to prevent such infectious diseases is to stay away from wildlife, say no to game, avoid their habitats and livestock and farms mixing with wildlife,” said Shi Zhengli, a researcher with the Wuhan Institute of Virology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.