Marmots, raccoon dogs, squirrels, birds, snakes, Chinese bamboo rats, Amur hedgehogs, hog badgers, mink, foxes and other animals were for sale at markets in Wuhan in China before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Researchers from China, Britain and Canada studied the animal sales from Wuhan wet markets immediately before the first case of the coronavirus was reported.
They found that more than 47,000 live animals were on sale between May 2017 and November 2019 in Wuhan’s markets. The first reported case of COVID-19 was in December 2019 in Wuhan.
“The wild animals on sale in Wuhan suffered poor welfare and hygiene conditions,” the paper, published on Monday in the journal Scientific Reports, said.
Almost all animals were sold alive, caged, stacked and in poor condition, the report said. In addition, most stores offered butchering services done on-site, compromising food hygiene and animal welfare.
Though there has been speculation that SARS-CoV-2 could have been leaked from a Wuhan laboratory, it is still widely believed to have originated in bats, with the closest natural match found in a cave in Yunnan.
The earliest cases of human COVID-19 infection were linked to Wuhan’s Huanan seafood market, initially identified as where SARS-CoV-2 first crossed to humans.
However, some early infections were connected to other Wuhan markets, where a separate SARS-CoV-2 line was also detected, raising the possibility that the spillover happened much earlier, possibly through wildlife trafficking.
After the first COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China cracked down on wildlife trafficking and closed wet markets and captive breeding facilities. However, it still allowed animals to be bred for fur or traditional Chinese medicine.
The study said that for wildlife trafficking to stop, the Chinese government should invest in changing the attitudes of consumers through education.
They should raise awareness among consumers not only for health but also for animal welfare and global biodiversity concerns.
If not, demand will continue despite national bans; bans will only push suppliers into black-market and dark-web operations.