In Brief:

      • Many health experts believe that COVID-19 emerged from a wet-market in Wuhan, China.
      • Many viruses emerge from wet-markets due to their lack of sanitation and sale of exotic animals.
      • Researchers believe bats are extraordinary at spreading pathogens for several reasons.
      • Wet-markets sprouted up throughout China after the government allowed for the sale of exotic animals in response to wide-spread famine.

Ask any zoologist, virologist, or biologist if they are shocked that COVID-19 emerged from a Chinese wet-market, and the answer will likely be a resounding no.

Experts from around the world have sounded the alarm against Asian so-called “wet-markets” for years. In his 2018 book The End of Epidemics, Dr. Jonathan Quick of the World Health Organization warned against the epidemic potential of wet-markets. As Dr. Quick suggests, regulated livestock like pigs, cows, and chickens are heavily monitored and vaccinated in order to avoid the spread of zoonotic diseases (diseases that jump from animals to humans).

Some Zoonotic Outbreaks Of The Last 100 years 

  • 1920 – HIV spread from chimpanzees to humans in the Belgian Congo as drug use and sex trafficking became rampant. The disease is thought to have spread across the globe through a French-Canadian flight attendant in the early 1980s.
  • 1975 – Researchers do not know exactly where Ebola originated from, but the virus is named after the Ebola River in Democratic Republic of the Congo. Bats are believed to have infected mammals like chimpanzees who then infected humans.
  • 2009 – H1N1 spread from pigs to humans. Swine influenza was first documented in 1998 in the U.S. The 2009 outbreak originated in wet-markets across China.
  • 2013 – Wild waterfowl initially spread bird flu to poultry livestock. Humans can become contaminated with bird flu through bird feces or undercooked poultry.
  • 2019 –  COVID-19 emerged in one of many wet-markets in Wuhan, China. The novel-coronavirus spread from bats to pangolins (anteaters) who were then consumed by humans.

Wet markets generally contain unregulated, wild animals that may have come in contact with diseases. Enter COVID-19, the most widespread epidemic since the Spanish Flu of 1918.

wet market stand with lady

COVID-19: The Complete Backstory

Doctors in China first began to take note of COVID-19 in early December when citizens of Wuhan started to fall ill with flu-like symptoms. Of the first 41 patients who exemplified what would later be known as COVID-19, 27 had recently visited Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei Province.

On December 30th, several Chinese doctors, led by Dr. Li Wenliang, conducted a group chat on a popular Chinese social networking app. Wenliang expressed concern over a new, novel coronavirus, and asked his colleagues to be on guard. The doctor’s claim of a worrying, new coronavirus led the authoritarian Chinese government to rebuke Wenliang and force him to denounce his comments.

Wuhan’s own health bureau released a public statement declaring there was no evidence of a novel-coronavirus that had recently spread to humans. Dr. Wenliang died from COVID-19 exposure on February 7th.

On January 1st, China officially closed the wet market after more cases were reported, the action was too late. The first COVID-19 related death was reported on January 11th and the virus only spread from there. Wuhan was finally placed under quarantine on January 30th and the WHO officially declared a global public-health emergency the following day.

You can learn more about the early days of COVID-19 below:

early days of coronavirus timeline

Why Are Bats So Efficient At Spreading Disease?

A common theme amongst many deadly pathogens is that they appear to have originated from bats. According to researchers, humans are largely to blame for the trend. In many developing nations, farmers have had to raise their livestock deeper into jungles and rainforests, putting their livestock in closer contact with bats. In Malaysia, farmers caused an outbreak of Nipah, the first transmission of a pathogen from pigs to humans in the 20th century, when they began to raise their pigs in deeper regions of the jungle.

Bats tend to carry more diseases than any other animal for a multitude of reasons. First and foremost, bats are very social creatures. A majority of bat species will live and sleep together in communities that can number in the tens of thousands. In close quarters, viruses can easily begin to infect the entire community.

Why don’t millions of bats die from the viruses they spread each year? According to the science publication Minute Earth, it all comes down to flight. Bats are incredibly resilient to pathogens because they can fly. As a rule, animals cannot produce the large amount of energy needed for flight without producing waste products that are damaging to their DNA. Through means of evolution, bats have developed a formidable immunity to the pathogens that their own bodies create. Therefore, they are free to spread deadly viruses to livestock without succumbing to the viruses themselves.

Why Have Wet-Markets Become So Popular In China?

According to most estimates, Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” a disastrous socio-economic plan to nationalize all Chinese farms, resulted in the deaths of between 35-45 million due to starvation. China lifted sanctions on wild-animal farming in 1976 in response to the wide-spread famine.

Over the next few decades, the demand for wild animals skyrocketed as breeders touted the health benefits of certain species. Many of these unregulated animals continue to be viewed by wealthy Chinese as status symbols. What began as subsistence farming for the poor transformed into a burgeoning industry throughout all of China. Even as the Chinese government began to regulate wet-markets in the wake of the SARS outbreak of 2003, these unsanitary markets have still found a way to flourish.

Why Are Wet-Markets Hot Zones For New Viruses?

As the phrase “wet-market” may suggest, food markets in China are a messy place to visit. Each day, thousands of people pack open-air street markets to browse the wide assortment of exotic animals on display. Unregulated animals like pangolins (ant-eaters), reptiles, and bats are piled into crates in small proximity to each other.

In most cases, animals in a wet-market are slaughtered on the spot when purchased. As such, the ground becomes soaked in the blood of these pathogen-carrying, exotic animals. To put it plainly, viruses and wet-markets are a match made in heaven. When humans eat these contaminated animals, there is a high probability that the virus will infect them. SARS, MERS, H1N1, and COVID-19 all originated from unsanitary wet-markets.

wuhan wet market

China Finally Calls For Wet-Markets To Be Permanently Outlawed

In a surprise move, On February 24th, China announced a shutdown of its wild-life farming industry – an industry that earns an estimated revenue of $74 billion per year. The ban outlaws the sale, purchase, and consumption of pangolins, hedgehogs, and reptiles. While the move may seem to be too little too late for many, the global community can only hope to remain proactive in order to prevent the next coronavirus from spreading before it’s too late.

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