WHO’s Unprecedented Appeal: Suspend Sale & Slaughter Of Live Wild Mammals In Food Markets To Head Off New Virus Risks
Pangolin, Manis javanica – a mammal that can harbor coronavirus infections; huting for its meat and scales have made it one of the world’s most endangered species.

In an unusually bold step for the cautious global health agency, the World Health Organization has called upon countries to suspend the sale of captured live wild mammals in food markets as an emergency measure.

The appeal follows on the publication of a report by a WHO-convened international team examining the origins of the SARS-CoV2 virus – which found that one of the most likely routes by which the virus may have first infected people was via wild food markets. Such markets are a well entrenched tradition in parts of Southeast Asia and China, including cities such as Wuhan, where the first novel coronavirus case clusters visibly appeared in December 2019.

In the closed and contained surroundings of such markets, scientists have long maintained that it’s highly possible a wild mammal such as a pangolin, itself an endangered species, could have conveyed the SARS-CoV2 virus to humans – either directly or indirectly from another infected animal source such as horseshoe bats. Horsehoe bats, which are indigenous to southwestern China’s Yunnan Province, have been found to harbor coronaviruses that are among those most genetically similar to the SARS-CoV2.

The call by WHO is only for an “emergency” suspension of wild animal trade and slaughter at food markets – and it is limited to mammals – rarther than including reptiles and other species that can also harbor and carry dangerous viruses. But it is still unprecedented.

Live animal markets in China have been the source of previous coronavirus outbreaks, including the 2003 SARS,  In that case, Asian Palm Civets, infected by horseshoe bats, reportedly carried the virus to humans working or shopping in the markets.
WHO Traditionally Avoided Strong Policy Advice on Upstream Causes of Foodborne Diseases

WHO has traditionally steered clear of definitivie policy advice to ban or curb activities related to the upstream causes of foodborne disease – and which touch heavily on local economies, food sources, cultural sensitivities and traditions.

For instance, it has taken years for the agency to gingerly take up even a few cautious statements that support less meat consumption in diets overall – despite the overwhelming evidence that diets heavy in red meat, in particular, are bad for both health, and climate/environment.

And in the case of the much more widely discussed issue of air pollution, which still killed more people annually than COVID-19, WHO has avoided direct calls for similar restrictions or bans on the production or sale of pollution sources, such as highly polluting second hand vehicles – which are among the leading sources of air pollution in fast-growing low- and middle-income cities today.

Equally noteworthy is the fact that the WHO statement on the wild mammal trade and slaughter was issued jointly with the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and the United Nations Environment Programme.  It is one of the more immediate signs that the agencies are indeed taking up a “One Health” approach to the pandemic that they have talked about so much – and thereby also tackling other upstream causes of foodborne diseases in the food production and supply chain.

While the WHO appeal, and the companion guidance it has issued on reducing public health risks from live animal markets, is hardly likely to make an immediate dent in the very widespread practice in Asia and Africa of wild mammal capture and sales – it is still a modest starting point.

It signals  the growing recognition of zoonoses from wildlife as a key cause of new and emerging pathogens – which have bequeathed the world HIV/AIDS, Ebola, SARS and now COVID19 in recent decades, to name only a few diseases.  And while many wild animals can harbor dangerous diseases, it is mammals, the closest relatives to homo sapiens, that generally harbor the viruses of greatest danger to people, the guidance notes.

“To reduce the public health risks associated with the sale of live wild animals for food in traditional food markets, WHO, OIE and UNEP have issued guidance on actions that national governments should consider adopting urgently with the aim of making traditional markets safer and recognizing their central role in providing food and livelihoods for large populations,” the guidance states.

“In particular, WHO, OIE and UNEP call on national competent authorities to suspend the trade in live caught wild animals of mammalian species for food or breeding purposes and close sections of food markets selling live caught wild animals of mammalian species as an emergency measure,” the guidance further adds.

“Although this document focuses on the risk of disease emergence in traditional food markets where live animals are sold for food, it is also relevant for other utilizations of wild animals. All these uses of wild animals require an approach that is characterized by conservation of biodiversity, animal welfare and national and international regulations regarding threatened and endangered species.”

Nod to Traditional Cultures – Stops Short of Calling For Permanent Bans on Trade and Market Slaughter of Wild Mammals
Seafood and fresh food market in Wuhan, Hubei, China. Most confirmed cases of 2019-nCoV were traced back to Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, although at some of the early cases never visited the market.

The guidance notes that traditional food markets are an important part of “the social fabric of communities and are a main source of affordable fresh foods for many low-income groups,” as well as being an important source of livelihoods for millions of people.

“Significant problems can arise when these markets allow the sale and slaughter of live animals, especially wild animals, which cannot be properly assessed for potential risks – in areas open to the public. When wild animalsii 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 resultingin spill over of pathogens to other animals in the market.”

While the exact pathway by which the SARS-CoV2 infection entered the human population has not yet been identified – and some scientists believe that the virus may have even escapted from a laboratory research facility where coronaviruses were being studied – rather than first being spread through the food chain, the legacy of foodborne transmission of other coronaviruses in Asia’s traditional food markets is an established fact that WHO highlights.

“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 haemorrhagic fever, Nipah viral infections and other viral diseases – have wildlife origins. Within the coronavirus family, zoonotic viruses were linked to the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2003 and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which was first detected in 2012,” the guidance further notes.

Freshly slaughtered animals in a market in Wuhan, Hubei, China,hanging above conventional produce

Not only that, but “animals, particularly wild animals, are reported to be the source of more than 70% of all emerging infectious diseases in humans, many of which are caused by novel viruses. Traditional markets, where live animals are held, slaughtered and dressed, pose a particular risk for pathogen transmission to workers and customers alike.

“To mitigate this risk, an immediate emergency measure for regulatory authorities would be to introduce regulations to close these markets or those parts of the markets where live caught wild animals of mammalian species are kept or sold to reduce the potential for transmission of zoonotic pathogens,” the guidance states.

However, the guidance stops far short of calling for a permanent ban on the sales of wild mammals in traditional markets.

Rather it states that the “emergency measures should be of a temporary nature while responsible competent authorities conduct a risk assessment of each market, to identify critical areas and practices that contribute to the transmission of zoonotic pathogens.

“Competent authorities should work with market managers to introduce measures to mitigate identified risks. Markets or section of markets should be allowed to reopen only on condition that they meet rquired food safety, hygiene and environmental standards.”

The guidance also stops far short of suggesting that wlidlife farms, which may have been an upstream source of the first SARS-CoV2 infections, be closed, stating only that authorities need to ensure that live, caught wild animals “are not illegally introduced to wildlife farms, thus increasing the risk of transmission of zoonotic pathogens circulating in wild populations.”

Live chickens await slaughter at a traditional market in Xining, Lanzhou, China. Along with mammals, live poultry also harbor pathogens that have lept to humans, in episodes such as the H5N1 outbreak of avian influenza of the late 1990s.

Rather it sugggests that “farms that produce wild animals need to be registered, approved and inspected for animal health and welfare standards by relevant competent authorities.”

However the guidance does suggest that there should be a phasing out of the slaughter of live wild animals in market areas that are frequented by shoppers and members of the public.

“Such strategies envisage phasing out live animal marketing and slaughter in proximity to the public or physically separating such activities to reduce the risks of transmission of zoonotic diseases. Slaughter and dressing should be carried out in suitable facilities under control of the official veterinary service for ante- and post-mortem inspections,” the guidance states. “Key areas needed for inclusion in plans to upgrade hygiene and sanitation standards are sanitary facilities (toilets, hand washing), pest control, waste management and disposal (solid and liquid wastes), drains and sewage disposal. Food handling and marketing activities should be moved to wellmaintained stalls where surfaces can be easily washed and disinfected.”

Link here for the complete guidance document. 


Image Credits: Piekfrosch/wikipedia, lihkg.com, Arend Kuester/Flickr, Arend Kuester/Flickr, Flickr/M M.

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