Bloomberg publishes an article celebrating China’s wet markets

There’s been a lot of outrage across the blogosphere because Bloomberg Opinions published an article entitled “China is Reopening Its Wet Markets. That’s Good. Hold the outrage. Far from being cesspits of disease, they provide clean, fresh produce.” For most of us, though, “wet market” is synonymous with bats and with COVID-19. As it turns out, though, things are more complicated than either our understanding of where the virus originated or the author’s blithe assurance that wet markets are not “cesspits of disease.”

Early on in COVID-19’s progression through Wuhan and then out into the greater world, experts were pointing the finger of blame at the Wuhan “wet markets.” For those still unfamiliar with the term, a “wet market” is one that sells both produce and live animals that are slaughtered on the spot.

In Wuhan, the markets don’t limit themselves to slaughtering ordinary animals such as chicken, fresh fish, or (and it pains me terribly to say this) live dogs. Instead, people in Wuhan like exotic fare such as baby mice (eaten alive), bats, rats, and cats. Unlike domesticated animals, which carry common diseases and which we can monitor for unfamiliar diseases, these exotic animals bring with them exotic diseases. And that brings us to zoonosis.

Zoonosis is a category of infectious diseases that start with animal-to-animal transmission, morph to animal-to-human transmission, and then leap into human-to-human transmission. They’re almost always scary infectious diseases once they enter that last phase because humans have no antibodies to fight off these new diseases. (AIDS was a zoonotic disease).

A lot of zoonotic diseases get their start in China. In October 2007, researchers at the University of Hong Kong published an article entitled “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus as an Agent of Emerging and Reemerging Infection.” The article examined whether a SARS-like disease could reappear and, specifically, worried about the Chinese habit of seeking out rare, undomesticated animals and, worse, penning them, slaughtering them, and selling them in wet markets.

Likewise, in 2017, Smithsonian Magazine also published an article asking, “Is China Ground Zero for a Future Pandemic?” This article, too, was concerned about the fact that China’s wet markets – in this case,  the markets for birds and pigs – were creating the perfect conditions for generating a dangerous pandemic.

As it happens, COVID-19 might not be a product of a Wuhan wet market. Instead, there’s increasingly strong evidence that the virus originated in a laboratory situated near Wuhan, although the release was probably accidental. (For more detail behind that theory, check out Jim Geraghty’s masterful article about the virus’s probable origin in a Chinese laboratory.)

Now, back to the Bloomberg article that David Fickling wrote. The author admits that wet markets are dirty places that can breed new viruses. The problem, he says, is that Chinese supermarkets are really bad. At wet markets at least the food is fresh, so much so that Fickling likens them to farmers’ markets here at home:

The attraction of wet markets isn't so different from that of farmers’ markets in Western countries. In contrast to a supermarket model where multiple layers of retailers, wholesalers and logistics companies stand in between the consumer and the grower, wet markets offer a personal and direct connection between shopper, stallholder and farmer.

Consumers know the food is fresh because there's generally little refrigeration, so everything must be sold on the day. If in doubt, they can ask the stallholder what's in season and which produce is best at the moment. If they think one market looks unsanitary, they can choose to shop at another.

Fickling may be correct about Chinese consumer choices, but he’s lying when he says these markets are like farmers’ markets. American farmers’ markets are strictly regulated and there’s no animal slaughter.

In China, there’s no regulation and the butchers’ areas are a stinking mess of blood, offal, bugs, and bacteria. (To get a humorous insight into a fresh meat market is like in a Third World country, read this.) Just because Chinese supermarkets are awful (and I don’t doubt that they are, given the fact that China’s current culture is neither clean nor careful), that doesn’t exonerate the wet markets from being incredibly dangerous.

China needs to clean up its act and change its culture. Until then, Don Surber is correct that we need to isolate China for our own good (and, one hopes, in the long term for the Chinese people’s good too).

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