A study published by Scientific Reports on Monday documented the sale of almost 50,000 live animals at the infamous “wet markets” of Wuhan during the two years before the coronavirus outbreak that would spread around the world.
Interestingly, the study did not find any evidence of live bats or pangolins among the animal sales – the two species most commonly viewed as prime suspects for passing the coronavirus along to humans. Another 38 species were trafficked at the markets between May 2017 and November 2019, 31 of them protected.
“While we caution against the misattribution of COVID-19’s [Chinese coronavirus] origins, the wild animals on sale in Wuhan suffered poor welfare and hygiene conditions and we detail a range of other zoonotic infections they can potentially vector,” wrote the authors of the study, who hailed from China, the United Kingdom, and Canada.
The researchers noted that while pangolins still pop up in media discussions of possible coronavirus origins, thanks to early reports that described them as a highly likely source of human infection, biologists long ago dismissed them as the source of “spillover” into humans, and the new study noted that “live pangolin trading has largely ceased in China.” The pangolin could be a “reservoir” of coronavirus that passes the disease along to other animals who infect humans, however.
The report noted that the World Health Organization’s (W.H.O.) investigation of Wuhan’s wet markets in early 2021 was “inconclusive,” since the markets had been “closed down completely at that point for 4 months,” but W.H.O. is still interested in pangolins as a potential “intermediate host” of the coronavirus.
The author of the study published in Scientific Reports had better luck than W.H.O. at investigating the wet markets because they were “serendipitously” studying wildlife trafficking at all 17 of Wuhan’s markets from 2017 until the pandemic began. They were looking for the source of a tick-borne fever with an “unusually high initial case fatality rate of 30%” that broke out in Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, in 2009. The sale of live animals at wet markets seemed a likely vector for ticks to pass the fever along to humans.
The wet market vendors allegedly viewed the Chinese authors of the study as an “objective observer unconnected to law enforcement,” so they were cooperative and provided a great deal of data about the animals they sold, and how they were obtained.
The vendors would not have been so cooperative with anyone linked to the authorities, because nearly all of the wildlife sales logged by the report were technically illegal – none of the shops had all of the necessary permits and certificates.
An unstated assumption of the report is that the Chinese government did not interfere with the research, nearly complete before the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) grew nervous about allowing virology data to escape from Wuhan unedited.
The research team accumulated records of 47,381 animal sales from Wuhan’s 17 wet markets. None of the animals were bats or pangolins, and the researchers doubted the vendors were making any conscious efforts to hide such sales, because they were quite open about selling numerous other protected species, and most of the data was compiled long before the communists would have seen any reason to pressure these illegal-but-tolerated vendors to conceal bat or pangolin sales.
Wildlife sold at the Wuhan wet markets included crocodiles, snakes, peafowl, pheasants, hedgehogs, dogs, foxes, squirrels, and mink. Mink are known to infect each other with the coronavirus and are considered a suspect for passing the coronavirus to humans, either during the original outbreak or in a feared future “re-infection.”
The study noted that most of the species trafficked at the markets “are capable of hosting a wide range of infectious zoonotic diseases or disease-bearing parasites” that can infect humans with potentially lethal consequences, but the wet markets largely lacked the certificates that would prove their animals were properly checked for diseases or quarantined and the Chinese government made little effort to enforce those requirements.
The study noted that W.H.O. investigators reported animals at Wuhan’s biggest wet market were “acquired from farms officially licensed for breeding and quarantine, and as such no illegal wildlife trade was identified” – but in truth, “because China has no regulatory authority regulating animal trading conducted by small-scale vendors or individuals it is impossible to make this determination.”
The study found:
Almost all animals were sold alive, caged, stacked, and in poor condition. Most stores offered butchering services, done on site, with considerable implications for food hygiene and animal welfare. Approximately 30% of individuals from 6 mammal species inspected had suffered wounds from gunshots or traps, implying illegal wild harvesting.
The study concluded by noting that while China is publicly shutting down much of the wildlife trade and the wet markets, and the trade in high-profile “charismatic species” has been curtailed somewhat around the world, demand for “lower-profile” species that could infect humans remains high.
The authors wrote:
Our own previous investigation found that, in China, a substantial desire to purchase and/or own wildlife products as ‘prestige items’ still transcends social classes, age groups, education levels and rural versus urban residents, even though this involves breaking the law. In major part this is because protective legislation has not been enforced consistently, fostering a nonchalant disregard for wildlife exploitation.
The absence of bats and pangolins from Wuhan’s wet market sales will be of interest to skeptics of the wildlife origin theory, as some of the most likely disease-spreading suspects from the animal kingdom have been taken off the table. The recent surge of media and government interest in the “lab leak” origin theory has been partially driven by the inability of investigators, either from W.H.O. or the Chinese government, to find evidence of the coronavirus jumping from animals to humans – evidence that should have been relatively simple to produce, especially since the authoritarian regime in Beijing has strong incentives to produce it. Also, as the authors of the Scientific Reports publication acknowledged, there are documented early cases of the coronavirus that could not be linked to Wuhan’s wet markets.
This latest study of the wet markets makes it clear that many animals theoretically capable of passing Chinese coronavirus to humans were brought to Wuhan, stored under unsanitary conditions, and sold as meat, with little effective oversight from any level of the vast Chinese government. The hunt is still on for proof that the coronavirus passed from animals in the wild to humans, without any involvement by China’s notoriously unsafe virology laboratories.