Mad cow disease, avian flu, swine flu, SARS and COVID-19 all are believed to have emanated from wet markets, and there may be another potential deadly virus on its way.
A new strain of swine flu called G4 EA H1N1 is circulating in Chinese pig farms, and according to a study published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and a report in The New York Times, it has infected some humans and is a candidate to create another pandemic if not controlled immediately.
While measures can be taken with animals raised and processed on farms or in slaughterhouses to try to control the spread of disease, wet markets bring consumers and the general public in direct contact with a wide range of live and just-slaughtered animals, including pigs, birds, seafood, snakes, porcupines, beavers, baby crocodiles and other exotic animals.
We cannot sit by and allow these markets to incubate our next pandemic.
These markets create an imminent danger because animal fluids, mainly blood and urine, can be co-mingled, offering a substrate for viruses to take hold, evolve, mutate and eventually infect humans, where ordinarily they would only infect the animals.
Dr. Anthony Fauci has said that COVID-19 was a “direct result” of these unsanitary marketplaces.
The United Nations’ acting head of biodiversity, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, has called for a global prohibition of wet markets while adding that care would need to be taken not to push such activity into black-market trade. She has been joined in the call by the secretary general of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation.
Closer to home, U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Cory Booker led the call for China not to reopen its wet markets, an effort supported by more than 60 legislators from both parties and sent to the Chinese ambassador to the United States in April.
Still, it’s not clear that China and other countries where wet markets are common are doing their part. From time to time there are bans, warnings and educational programs dealing with the risks, but there is often inadequate enforcement of regulations pertaining to selling live or just-slaughtered animals in these markets.
Some of the proponents of the markets suggest that valuable traditional medicines are harvested from the fluids of the live animals, but surely controlled environments could be established for that purpose. I also understand that cultural norms differ and matter, and I understand that some consumers prefer to procure fresh meat. Still, human health matters more.
Back to the new virus. In the recently published study, 10% of pig farm workers and 4%-5% of their families were infected with G4 EA H1N1. Younger people tested positive at higher rates. Illness risk is still low, but like other outbreaks that stemmed from viruses jumping from animals to humans, it could evolve to become more aggressive as it moves through human populations.
What we still don’t know, and what we need to worry about, is whether any of the infected individuals in the study acquired the infection through person-to-person contact; if they did, this conjures up a dangerous and distressful scenario.
Our distress should stimulate personal and national activism toward a global ban of wet markets that involve live animal trade, right now.
We can’t know the mortality rate associated with this novel virus, G4 EA H1N1, and what’s worse is that we won’t be able to know it until there is an outbreak or an epidemic within human populations.
Harris Pastides is a professor of epidemiology and president emeritus of the University of South Carolina
Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.