SARS-CoV-2 and the risk of pandemics linked to trade in wild animals

SARS-CoV-2 and the risk of pandemics linked to trade in wild animals

The Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has caused a pandemic which has spread to every continent, including Europe. Although knowledge about the origin of the virus is still rudimentary, it is currently assumed to have transferred from an animal, probably via an intermediate host, to humans at a wild animal wet market in the city of Wuhan in central China. Member of European Parliament (MEP) Henna Virkkunen raised a question about the Commission’s measures to encourage China to impose a permanent ban on the sale of wild animals.

At wild animal markets across China, where hygiene is poor, wild animals are kept in tiny cages in close proximity with each other. In nature, such animals would never come together, nor house themselves amongst contrasting species. The natural separation of animals exists to ensure survival and to protect from zoonotic disease transfer between species. China’s wet markets create conditions conducive to allowing viruses to transfer from one species to another and even to humans, which is how the SARS-CoV-2 virus is currently assumed to have infected people.

Whilst China has currently announced the closure of some of its wild animal markets, the details of the prohibition and the cessation of trade in wild animals remains unclear. Once the acute crisis is over, the European Union should step up pressure under its foreign and trade policies to secure the permanent closure of wild animal markets and call for a halt to trade in wild animals. This measure is essential in order to reduce the risk of a fresh pandemic.

In March 2020, Finnish MEP Henna Virkkunen of the European People’s Party (EPP) raised a parliamentary question to the European Commission enquiring about the measures needed “to encourage China to impose a permanent ban on the sale of wild animals throughout the country?”

In July, Environment, Oceans and Fisheries Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius replied that “according to the information available at this stage, China has closed many of the so-called wet markets, including in Wuhan and surrounding areas, and has taken measures to ban certain forms of trade in wild animals”. 

Mr Sinkevicius reported that the Commission welcomes the measures taken to prevent the possible spread of zoonotic diseases and “also welcomes the allocation by the Chinese central government of more than 10 billion Yuan (ca. EUR 1.3 billion) this year to improve the living environment in rural areas and to promote public health as well as the prevention and control of epidemics”. The Commissioner also highlighted that “the Commission encourages better regulation of domestic trade in wild animals as well as better supervision and enforcement, but the decision to close any particular markets belongs to the countries concerned”.

Further, the Commissioner reported that “in any case, for wild animals legally imported in the EU potential risks to public health, animal health and food safety in the EU are mitigated, as they need to comply with EU or national rules on the basis of international standards and scientific risk assessments”.

Commissioner Sinkevicius marked that “already since times before the COVID-19 outbreak, the EU has been working, in the context of a bilateral project, with organisations in China to reduce demand for illegally traded wildlife products, focusing inter alia on pangolin scales and that the new EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 confirms the commitment to step up the fight against illegal wildlife trade”.

Finally, Commissioner Sinkevicius declared that “the Commission will continue to cooperate intensively with the World Health Organisation and other partners, including China, in sharing scientific information on the source and spread of COVID-19 and best practices for its control”. With allegations of previous infectious outbreaks having originated from China’s wet markets, the European Union and international community must consider a ban on the trade of wild animals and wet markets which propagate disease and viruses.

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