The World Health Organisation has clarified its position on wet markets as it faces growing criticism from world leaders and wildlife organisations.
The World Health Organisation has clarified its position on wet markets as it faces growing criticism from world leaders and wildlife organisations.

WHO won’t support wet markets shutdown

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has clarified its position on wet markets amid conflicting reports over whether it approves of their reopening in China.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison made headlines across the world when he slammed the global health authority for continuing to support wet markets in the wake of the devastating coronavirus pandemic.

"I'm totally puzzled by this decision. We need to protect the world against potential sources of outbreaks of these types of viruses," the PM told Nine.

But Dr David Nabarro, a WHO special envoy on COVID-19, then told the BBC that the organisation's advice to China was to "close them".

"It's the advice everywhere. This is dangerous," he told BBC Radio 4's Today program.

"We don't have the capacity to police the world. Instead, what we have to do is offer advice and guidance, and there's very clear advice from the Food and Agriculture Organisation and WHO that said there are real dangers in these kinds of environments," he said.

"Seventy-five per cent of emerging infections come from the animal kingdom. It's partly the markets, but it's also other places where humans and animals are in close contact."

Wet markets are beginning to reopen in China as lockdown measures are eased. Picture: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images
Wet markets are beginning to reopen in China as lockdown measures are eased. Picture: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

 

When asked to clear up the confusion, WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic told news.com.au the organisation was aware of the health risks associated with wet markets, but stopped short of saying they should be closed down.

"In the context of food markets, WHO shares the concern about diseases, such as coronaviruses, that can pass between animals and humans," he said.

"WHO also recognises that food markets are key for people's food security - they are the main source of affordable vegetables and fruit, seafood, poultry and meat for many in Asia.

"WHO maintains that governments should rigorously enforce bans on the illegal trade and sale of wildlife for food, and for appropriate resources and attention to be given to ensuring food markets are clean, hygienic and safe before consideration can be given to resuming activities. These markets need to be well regulated and managed."

Mr Jasarevic added that WHO was "reviewing existing guidance in light of COVID-19" but the closure of wet markets was an issue that was not just about health.

"This is an issue that goes beyond the health sector, and joint work with many sectors including agriculture and animal health is vital," he said.

 

WHAT ARE WET MARKETS?

Wet markets - as opposed to dry markets - are common across Asia and are places where people go to buy fresh seafood, meat and produce. Some markets, however, also sell and slaughter live animals onsite, such as chickens and fish.

The novel coronavirus that has swept across the world and killed more than 130,000 people is believed to have originated at a wet market in Wuhan, China, where live, exotic animals were sold.

When combined with unhygienic conditions, this can create opportunities for viruses like COVID-19 to jump between animals and mutate to the point they are able to infect humans.

The deadly SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) viruses, for example, are believed to have come from animals, with SARS jumping from civets to bats before humans and MERS from bats via camels.

WHAT'S HAPPENING NOW?

Shortly after the outbreak, China temporarily banned the sale of wild animals for food and shut down markets. But the country is now easing its lockdown measures and life is slowly returning to normal, meaning wet markets are beginning to reopen.

A Chinese news report showing wet markets are beginning to open across the country.
A Chinese news report showing wet markets are beginning to open across the country.

Wildlife organisations are now urging WHO to endorse a permanent ban on wild animal markets, saying they present both a threat to animals and human health.

"We call upon the WHO to publicly and unequivocally state the proven link between these markets and serious threats to human health," an open letter penned by the Lion Coalition and signed by hundreds of organisations said on World Health Day.

"In line with its stated mission to serve public health at all times, we urge the WHO to recommend that governments worldwide permanently ban live wildlife markets and the use of wildlife in traditional medicine."

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has also called for a global ban, saying, "Only a global response can ensure a pandemic like this never happens again."

But a group of experts from Oxford University last week wrote for The Conversation that blanket bans were "unlikely to benefit people or wildlife" and could encourage more unsanitary practices and organised crime.

"Banning all wildlife trade is a kneejerk and potentially self-defeating measure," they wrote.

"A more appropriate response would be improving regulation of wildlife markets, especially those involving live animals. This should include full consideration of public health and animal welfare concerns to ensure there is low risk of future animal-to-human disease outbreaks.

"Wildlife trade enables people in many parts of the world to meet their basic needs and can provide livelihood benefits from harvesting or farming," they wrote.

"Rushing to indiscriminately ban all wildlife trade in response to COVID-19 would not eradicate the risk of animal-to-human disease outbreaks. It could also have a severe impact on livelihoods and biodiversity."

Renowned conservationist and primatologist Dr Jane Goodall has also acknowledged the issue is complex.

"It's really good that China closed down the live wild animal markets, in a temporary ban which we hope will be made permanent, and other Asian countries will follow suit," she said.

"But in Africa it will be very difficult to stop the selling of bush meat because so many people rely on that for their livelihoods.

"It will need a lot of careful thought on how it should be done. You can't just stop somebody doing something when they have absolutely no money to support themselves or their families, but at least this pandemic should have taught us the kind of things to do to prevent another one."

Originally published as WHO won't support wet markets shutdown