As the virus situation in Wuhan escalates and cases are being detected beyond China’s borders including in Singapore, experts have begun to talk about the origins of the virus.
Similar to the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003, this current coronavirus started in wet markets in China packed with live and dead animals and teeming with human shoppers where conditions are ripe for such a virus to jump from animals to humans.
In a briefing, the director of China Centre of Disease Control and Prevention, Gao Fu, said that the “The origin of the new coronavirus is the wildlife sold illegally in a Wuhan seafood market,”
A Business Insider (BI) article describes one stall in such a market that sells hundreds of caged chickens are right next to the butcher counter where uncooked meat is chopped, with dogs watching hungrily nearby.
“Vendors hock skinned hares, while seafood stalls display glistening fish and shrimp,” they explained.
Beyond the meats we’re used to here, these markets in Wuhan also sell everything from dogs to snakes, civets, and crocodiles—both legal and illegal ones. Photographs of the Huanan Seafood Market—where the outbreak is believed to have started—show about 50 types of wild animals on sale there including porcupines and fixes as well as endangered pangolins. The market was shuttered by authorities on 1 January.
On Wednesday, authorities in Wuhan issued a ban on the trading of live animals at wet markets. The outbreak has resulted in 18 deaths so far and infected more than 640 people.
In Singapore, three people have been confirmed as having the virus, leading local authorities to ramped up precautionary measures.
Poor regulation and illegal wildlife trade to blame
The Wildlife Conservation Society said to BI, “Poorly regulated, live animal markets mixed with illegal wildlife trade offer a unique opportunity for viruses to spillover from wildlife hosts into the human population.”
The current virus, identified now as 2019-nCoV, is a zoonotic disease, like SARS, meaning that it spreads from animals to humans. In the case of SARS, the hosts were bats.
This time, preliminary research indicates that it’s possible that the Wuhan virus, in its most recent evolution, was passed to humans from snakes. However, China’s government medical adviser Zhong Nanshan noted that badgers and rats could also be possible sources.
China has also recently confirmed human-to-human transmission of the virus, which led to them putting the entire city of Wuhan with its 11 million population under quarantines. Unfortunately, it’s believed that some people who are contagious had already left the city before the quarantine.
Chief medical officer at Healix International, Adrian Hyzler, told Business Insider in a different article that this was “always been waiting to happen”. He explained that Wuhan was especially at risk due to the city’s density, its position as a transportation hub, and the many live-animal wet markets.
Mr Hyzler said that the close contact of people and animals in Wuhan is a “recipe for a pandemic”. Though we note that the current outbreak is not considered a pandemic for now.
“Everyone in public health is waiting for another pandemic,” said the medical officer. “But in countries that aren’t looking for it, you’re not going to find it until it spreads.”
The sentiment is shared by other experts as well. A scientist at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, Eric Toner, was quoted by Business Insider saying, “Ever since SARS, there have been calls for improving or closing down live animal markets in China and other countries, particularly in Asia.”
“There’s an awful lot we don’t yet know, but I think it is fair to say that live-animal markets are a threat not just to the people who work in them, but to public health more generally,” he added.
Since the outbreak, China authorities in Wuhan and beyond have shut down markets, zoos, forest parks and suspended trade and transport of live poultry and wild animals.
However, Reuters notes that residents in certain areas have pointed out that these measures appear to be mostly symbolic.