How to prevent the next pandemic from wet markets

 

 

COVID-19 is creating havoc around the world, with over one third of the world's population estimated to be under lockdown and experiencing restrictions on freedom unimaginable only a few months ago.

Economists fear the economic impacts will be the worst since the Great Depression of 1929 and hundreds of millions of jobs will be lost around the world. Extremely strong measures should be taken to ensure that this never happens again.

COVID-19 most likely originated in a wet market with wildlife species in Wuhan, China. It most likely originated in bats, and jumped to humans through an intermediary source, probably via pangolins.

Consequently there has been pressure from international governments, NGO's and celebrities calling for the closure of all wet markets, and all wildlife markets by some - as these are the cause of our current crisis. However, is calling for a closure of all wet and wildlife markets likely to get us to our objective of ensuring something like COVID-19 doesn't happen again?

 

To answer this question, we first need to understand wet markets. Wet markets are varied and complex across Asia and the world. Wet markets sell fresh produce, the 'wet' refers to the fresh fruit and vegetables and meat sold on the premises (in many ways they are run of the mill farmers markets). Where people get confused, is that live animals are present, and sometimes butchered at some of these markets. Only a minority of wet markets sell exotic wildlife, and many of these exist outside of China as well. In fact many of the images we have seen go viral on social media are of bats in Tomohon, on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, and are not from Wuhan.

Sanitary standards vary widely across wet markets. Many feature excellent health risk management, while others have wild and domestic animals crowded together in unsanitary conditions. Wet markets exist around the world including in countries like Sweden where they are well-governed and managed. Australia also has wet markets s - e.g. the Melbourne and Sydney Fish Market.

 

Social distancing last week at the Sydney Fish Market. Picture: Nikki Short
Social distancing last week at the Sydney Fish Market. Picture: Nikki Short

Wet markets are an important source of fresh food and of livelihoods for millions of people in East Asia, West Africa and globally. They connect low income farmers directly with consumers, and are often considered a safer and more reliable source of food than larger supermarkets in countries with weak regulations. Many of these wet markets are also located away from large cities or towns, like in Cameroon's Korup rainforest where villages are hours away from a supermarket or shopping complex.

Calling for a shut down of all wet markets therefore will likely not only affect millions of lives and livelihoods but it is also likely to be unworkable and ineffective.

Our experience from researching and working in the policymaking, governance and enforcement of the wildlife trade internationally, provide a number of insights for ensuring that something like COVID-19 never happens again.

Bans without local support mostly fail: Bans that do not consider the circumstances and needs of the people affected by them, and are not culturally sensitive will most probably flounder. Failed bans leads to markets going underground making them even more difficult to regulate and significantly more dangerous for disease emergence.

 

A poultry vendor wearing a face mask to help curb the spread of the coronavirus prepares birds at a wet market in downtown Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Friday, April 24, 2020. Picture: AP
A poultry vendor wearing a face mask to help curb the spread of the coronavirus prepares birds at a wet market in downtown Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Friday, April 24, 2020. Picture: AP

Focus on high risk markets and species: A targeted approach that focuses on high risk markets with poor sanitary practices (both in China and internationally), and high risk species for emerging infectious diseases (e.g.horseshoe bats and great apes) is likely to reduce disease risk more effectively than a broad attempt at a blanket ban

Ensure sustainability of new regulations and practices: Evidence of high-risk markets should be combined with consideration for different local contexts, cultural perceptions and values towards wildlife, wildlife trade and consumption. This is more likely to lead to sustainable solutions and policies with local buy in which risks to public health, animal welfare, and conservation are effectively minimised.

It is critical that we focus on the markets, species, and production practices that pose the highest risk for public health concern. Honing in on better sanitation, identifying and better regulating high risk markets such as those that sell both domestic and wild species both in China and beyond would make a lot more sense and is much more likely to reduce the risk of a future COVID-19 - type destructive episode than calls for blanket bans.

Originally published as How to prevent the next pandemic from wet markets