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Pangolins and bats have both been found to carry viruses that bear striking similarities to the COVID-19 coronavirus that is sweeping the world. These are among the creatures that are available in China’s notorious wet markets, and while both China and Vietnam have banned them, reports have surfaced that the wet markets are still open.
A correspondent for the Daily Mail said that in the city of Dongguan, “Everyone here believes the outbreak is over and there's nothing to worry about any more. It's just a foreign problem now as far as they are concerned. The markets have gone back to operating in exactly the same way as they did before coronavirus.” This source went on to say that “The only difference is that security guards try to stop anyone taking pictures which would never have happened before.”
This report comes after China lifted the nation-wide lockdown orders, and told citizens that resuming their normal life and livelihoods was the thing to do. Markets in Guilin were also reported to be selling exotic animals for food.
It is not known precisely how the virus made the jump from animals to humans, or the exact origin of it. Conservationists and scientists say that wildlife should not be for sale for consumption, and instead should be studied to see exactly how transmission from animal to human was made.
Pangolins are both used as food and in traditional Chinese medicine, and as such, they are the most commonly trafficked mammal on the black market. Handling the animals at all should only be done with caution, according to scientists. Smuggled Malayan pangolins were the ones in which related groups of coronaviruses have been found, Tommy Lam at The University of Hong Kong told the BBC.
Lam went on to say that while the pangolins’ “role as the intermediate host of the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak remains to be confirmed, sale of these wild animals in wet markets should be strictly prohibited to avoid future zoonotic [animal to human] transmission.”
It’s not only pangolins that are considered a viral threat to human populations, but bats as well. The coronaviruses found in bats are even more similar to human viruses, but in bats, the viruses do not have the key tool that helps the viruses invade cells.
Professor Edward Holmes, from the University of Sydney, notes that “Bats are certainly involved, pangolins may be, but it is very possible that other animal species are involved as well.” Researchers are working hard to find the animal origin of the illness.
Yet, the wet markets in China remain open.
“A distinctly fetid stench greets you long before entering the market; soon it becomes apparent why they’re referred to as ‘wet’,” writes Melissa Chen for Spectator US describing the experience of visiting a wet market with her mother as a child. “Unidentified fluids, sometimes with ribbons of red swirls, pool around your shoes, draining from the blocks of ice used to keep all the meats fresh.
“Storekeepers occasionally hose things down in specious attempts to disperse the suspicious-looking liquids, meaning the floor never dries. Live eels and fish slosh around in open tanks perched on prep tables where they’re bludgeoned, gutted and filleted for each customer.
“I once had the misfortune of standing in the Splash Zone, too close to a fishmonger who was wrestling with and descaling a snakehead (type of fish) while it was still violently flopping and gasping for air. A mixture of blood, water and flecks of fish scale rained upon me like macabre confetti.”
This is the kind of wet market that sold wild creatures in Wuhan, and is believed to be the origin of the virus. The kind of species that are available at these markets is wide and varied. Dogs, cats, wild cubs, bats, scorpions, snakes, are all packed together in cages, stacked atop one another.
Much as author Albert Camus noted his opposition to hanging after witnessing public executions as a child, Chen advocates for the closing of the wet markets. Many voices denounce the practice of trapping, trading, smuggling, selling, butchering, and consuming wild and exotic animals, and researchers and scientists stating unequivocally their belief that a terrifying contagion emerged from the practice.
For it’s part, however, Beijing continues to deny that the coronavirus originated in China at all, and touts theories that it came from the US as a means of biological warfare. This despite the fact that the wet markets came under fire after the SARS outbreak in 2003, when that virus was found to have originated in a Guangdong market. After a temporary ban that year to contain the virus, they were reopened. And the markets remain open today.