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More China pressure: World leaders demand wet markets be shut down

Scientists estimate that 60-75% of emerging diseases are 'zoonotic,' or originating from animals.

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Indonesian meat market
Indonesian meat market
PREDICT/Indonesia
Updated: May 3, 2020 - 7:51pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

Amid an escalating war of words between Australia and China provoked by the global spread of the coronavirus, international pressure is building on China to close its wildlife "wet" markets, a notorious source of infectious diseases jumping from animals to humans. 

As global health experts were learning about the eruption of COVID-19 in the Chinese industrial city of Wuhan in January, Beijing ordered a temporary shutdown of wet markets, followed by a "permanent" ban in February.

In mid-April, China's wet markets reopened.

This response follows a pattern set during the 2003 SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak, when the Chinese government first shut down the markets, but later reopened them because of the very high Chinese demand for domestic and exotic meat consumption and the use of animal body parts for medicinal and aphrodisiac purposes.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is calling upon the U.S., France, Germany and other member states of the World Health Organization (WHO) to support an independent investigation into the origin of COVID-19, a demand he is expected to reaffirm at the May 17 WHO assembly.

Morrison wants more transparency from China and any other nations in which wet markets are found, including commitments to empower teams of independent experts to enter countries to investigate the sources and spread of pandemics.

When the WHO supported China's decision to reopen their wet markets on April 14, Morrison blasted the U.N. agency calling it "unfathomable," even though China is Australia's largest trading partner.

Morrison said on Friday during a press conference in Canberra that Australia has no information to suggest that COVID-19 originated in a lab in Wuhan. 

When asked for a response to President Trump's statement that he was confident that COVID-19 originated in a lab, Morrison said, "There's nothing we have that would indicate that was the likely source, though you can't rule anything out in these environments." 

In response to Morrison's demands, Jingye Cheng, the Chinese Ambassador to Australia, raised the specter of economic retaliation in an interview with the Australian Financial Review: “Maybe the ordinary people will say, ‘Why Should we drink Australian wine? Eat Australian beef?'”

The Chinese pushback continued when Hu Xijin, the editor of the state-run Global Times, taunted Australia on the Chinese microblogging site Weibo: “Australia is always there making trouble. It is a bit like chewing gum stuck on the sole of China’s shoe. Sometimes you have to find a stone to rub it off.”

At an April 27 briefing, Geng Shuang, the spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, challenged those who are demanding China take some responsibility for the global pandemic. “Some politicians are trying to make political maneuvers over the origin [of the coronavirus] to smear other countries, but their unpopular attempts will never succeed,” he said.

Geng deflected, “The urgent task for all countries is focusing on international cooperation rather than pointing fingers demanding accountability and other non-constructive approaches.”

Morrison's "unfathomable" response followed on the heels of a call for a worldwide shutdown of wet markets from a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers led by Senators Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Christopher Coons (D-Del.).

On April 8, Graham and Coons and nearly 60 other senators and representatives sent a letter to the directors-general of the WHO, the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations urging them “to take aggressive action toward a global shut down of live wildlife markets and a ban on the international trade of live wildlife that is not intended for conservation purposes."

The legislators pulled no punches in deploring wet markets as a public health danger. "Market vendors cage animals of different species in close proximity, where the animals are likely to urinate, defecate and potentially bleed or salivate on the animals below them,” they wrote. “The risk to food buyers can also be through the slaughter of animals in front of customers, releasing disease carrying fluids like blood, saliva, and excrement into the air, which can then splash or splatter on nearby people, be consumed or inadvertently inhaled by humans.”

The bipartisan group of lawmakers wrote: “Scientists estimate that approximately 60-75% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic and that approximately 72% originate from wildlife. Scientists also estimate that the majority of all future emerging infectious diseases will be zoonotic in nature, and zoonotic diseases are the ecological source for a long history of infectious diseases.”

Graham and Coons also wrote to Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai urging him to close the Chinese markets.

“We write to urgently request that China immediately close all operating wet markets that have a potential to expose humans to health risks through the introduction of zoonotic disease into the human population,” they wrote.

“The origin of the new coronavirus is the wildlife sold illegally in a Wuhan seafood market,” the two declared, citing Gao Fu, director of China’s own Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It is well documented that wet markets in China have been a source of a number of worldwide health problems, and their operation should cease immediately so as to protect the Chinese people and the international community from additional health risks,” wrote Graham and Coons.

In early March 2020, well before the tidal wave of coronavirus broke across the world, Liam Bartlett, a journalist at Australia’s "60 Minutes," went undercover with anti-animal trafficking activist  Steven Galster to the Chatuchak wet market in the heart of Bangkok, Thailand.

What they found were caged animals torn from their own natural habitats living in the overcrowded market crossbreeding more germs and parasites. Among the animals they found was a civet, the mammal scientists found to be the transmission host for SARS back in 2003.

Since the release of Bartlett’s "World of Pain" documentary, over 14,000,000 have viewed it online, and shortly after its release Thai officials closed the market.