WHO urges countries to ban the sale of wild animals to prevent diseases

A rescued pangolin bought off a wildlife seller rests at the Green Finger Garden in Lagos, Nigeria, photo: Reuters/Seun Sanni
A rescued pangolin bought off a wildlife seller rests at the Green Finger Garden in Lagos, Nigeria, photo: Reuters/Seun Sanni

The World Health Organization (WHO), the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) called on Tuesday for a stop of the sale of live wild animals at food markets to prevent the emergence of new diseases such as COVID-19.

The three agencies said wild animals were the source of most emerging infectious diseases in humans. They released a document with guidelines for countries to follow to reduce the chance of new pandemics.

“This is not a new recommendation, but COVID-19 has brought new attention to this threat given the magnitude of its consequences,” WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib told a news briefing.

They said that some of the earliest known cases of COVID-19 had links to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where wild animals were being sold, in the Chinese city of Wuhan. The first reported coronavirus patients were stall owners, market employees and regular visitors of the market.

Last year, China banned trade in wildlife for human consumption, but legal loopholes allow some disease-prone animals to be farmed, according to regional experts.

The WHO-led team, which visited the Huanan market to investigate the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, said the new virus had probably been transmitted from bats to humans through another animal. It’s not yet known which animals that could have been.

The three organizations think the selling of wild animals at open food markets may be the source of 70% of emerging infectious diseases in humans.

“When wild animals are kept in cages or pens, slaughtered and dressed in open market areas, these areas become contaminated with body fluids, faeces and other waste, increasing the risk of transmission of pathogens to workers and customers and potentially resulting in spillover of pathogens to other animals in the market,” the document said.

“Such environments provide the opportunity for animal viruses, including coronaviruses, to amplify themselves and transmit to new hosts, including humans.”

Most emerging infectious diseases such as Lassa fever, Marburg hemorrhagic fever and Nipah viral disease have wildlife origins, the three agencies said.

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