The Chinese government permanently banned all wet markets and consumption of wild animals because of COVID-19 pandemic
Recently, Chinese government health officials reported that they may have found patient zero of the COVID-19 pandemic. A shrimp vendor at the Wuhan wet market was the first person to test positive on December 10th.
While no one knows for sure what animal this virus jumped from (some say bat, some say pangolin), it most likely originated in the wet market at which our vendor worked.
The Chinese government permanently banned all wet markets and the sale as well as the consumption of wild animals because of this pandemic.
So, what are wet markets? And why are they so dangerous when it comes to mutating zoonotic viruses like COVID-19?
What is a Wet Market?
Wet markets are places where people sell live, wild animals. These markets have been around for centuries in China and other Asian countries.
Unfortunately, as the population grew, the demand for food increased as well. As an alternative to farming one type of animal, wet markets and the wild animal trade grew.
Before the COVID-19, one could visit the wet markets and see cages of animals stacked on top of each other. One dangerous combination, for example, is putting ferrets on top of chickens.
Now throw humans into the mix. This is the perfect environment for viral transmission. All that needs to happen is for the right virus to develop the right mutation.
Ferrets Shedding Viruses on Top of Chickens
Viruses mutate quickly because every gene in their genome codes for a useful protein (unlike our genome which contains about 99% junk DNA).
Imagine ferret viruses replicating and spreading near chickens. Chances are high that these viruses acquire a mutation that can then infect chicken cells.
Now imagine a person coming in and handling the animals every day. This person is breathing in the viral particles for long periods of time.
And while most mutations don’t end up creating an interesting or dangerous change, it only takes one mutation for the virus to be able to bind to human cells.
Mutation in Humans
This is only the first step. Once inside the human, the virus must gain (through further mutations) the ability to move between people. Some viruses, like ebola, are deadly but don’t transmit easily.
The sick person has to be very close and very sick, to give ebola to a healthy person.
This was why ebola did not spread into the community when sick doctors arrived in the US. Isolating an ebola-stricken person in a hospital and treating them is enough to stop the spread.
However, viruses like COVID-19 are airborne, meaning that they can travel in aerosolized droplets, which can transfer by contact.
Along with a long incubation period and mild symptoms in 80% of those infected, this virus made the jump from wet market animals to the human population silently.
People Coming and Going
Aside from the animals and market vendors, don’t forget about the thousands of people visiting wet markets every day.
When people go to these markets to buy food, they’re handling money, produce, bags, and other objects. This means that they are exchanging viruses with vendors who have been in contact with the wild animals.
Given all the foot traffic and contact in wet markets, it was only a matter of time before the perfect virus evolved.
Wet Markets Banned Permanently
So if wet markets are so dangerous, why weren’t they banned long ago? The answer to this is complicated and deeply rooted in the culture.
Given China’s long history, it is often difficult to let go of or re-evaluate traditions. Banning wet markets when they posed no harm would be like banning turkeys on Thanksgiving for no reason.
However, given the current situation, the Chinese authoritarian government was able to shut down all wet markets in the entire country with one edict.
Not only that, but this is a government that will be able to enforce the ban in the future.