People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has launched an international petition urging the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) to call for the end of “wet markets” in response to the current Chinese coronavirus pandemic, which may have originated in one.
The president of PETA, Ingrid E. Newkirk, also sent a letter addressed to W.H.O. Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in March encouraging him and his organization to “call for the closure of all live-animal meat markets worldwide to prevent the next outbreak.”
Tedros, the first non-medical doctor to run the public health agency, recently applauded wet markets as “an important source of affordable food and livelihood for millions of people around the world.”
“To protect the public, W.H.O. needs to act quickly, put politics aside, and protect millions of human lives by shutting down all live-animal markets worldwide, from China to New York,” a PETA representative told Breitbart News in remarks this week.
“Virologists agree that markets where sick and stressed animals are caged amid their own waste are breeding grounds for deadly influenza viruses and other diseases that cross the species barrier — and that only luck has prevented previous pandemics,” PETA continued. “Eating meat is unnecessary and unhealthy, and as long as live-animal markets are allowed to operate, humans will continue to be at risk and countless animals will needlessly endure miserable lives and a violent, painful death.”
In addition to calling for the closure of wet markets in China, the PETA representative also identified several other areas of concern for the animal rights group, just as Southeast Asia and New York: “In New York City alone, there are more than 80 live-animal markets and slaughterhouses still operating near schools, parks, and family residences. Thousands of terrified animals are trucked from factory farms in other states into the city each day in cramped, filthy crates.”
PETA’s petition calling for W.H.O. action has attracted over 135,000 signatures at press time. The text of the petition notes that scientists have traced multiple viruses back to animal consumption, including “Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, avian flu, swine flu, SARS, HIV, Ebola, and other diseases.”
While definitions vary, PETA is specifically calling for an end to open-air markets in which vendors sell live animals for consumption, keeping them in often inhumane conditions before slaughtering them in front of customers. W.H.O. identifies a wet market as a “place where members of the public go to buy small animals and birds that are: live and slaughtered there, live and taken home to be slaughtered, or already slaughtered and sold as meat.” More expansive definitions of wet markets include those which feature farmers and others selling fruits and vegetables along with meat.
Live-animal markets are features all around the world, though countries vary greatly in how they regulate them. In China, many markets feature vendors selling wild and exotic animal meat that would be illegal in the New York City markets identified by PETA.
Epidemiologists currently believe the Chinese coronavirus is most closely related to viruses originating in bats and pangolins, a species of anteater native to Asia. The Chinese Communist Party initially identified the Wuhan South China Seafood Wholesale Market in the eponymous central Chinese city as the origin of the virus.
“The origin of the new coronavirus is the wildlife sold illegally in a Wuhan seafood market,” Gao Fu, director of China Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a briefing in January.
National Geographic noted in a recent report that the Wuhan market in question allowed the sale of animals such as snakes, porcupines, and baby crocodiles for consumption. Some experts have also floated the possibility of illegal sales of laboratory animals occurring at that market, given the close proximity of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, known to be studying animal coronaviruses at the time of the outbreak.
The magazine also described wet markets generally as “an important source of affordable food and a livelihood for many,” echoing Tedros’ view nearly verbatim.
The Chinese government has indefinitely shut down the Wuhan wet market at the center of speculation regarding the pandemic, but reopened the nation’s wet markets in mid-April. It also claimed to have banned the “wild” animal meat trade, though Beijing has previously made similar claims that have not materialized.
Chinese authorities, for example, claimed in 2017 that they had banned the consumption of dog meat in anticipation of the annual Yulin Dog Meat Festival, which features wet markets in which vendors slaughter dogs for customers to eat. The announcement silenced many critics, as the festival had become a celebrity cause that year. The festival returned in 2018 and continued uninterrupted. It is scheduled to occur again in June of this year, though Chinese authorities are allegedly mulling a ban on eating dog meat again.
A 2017 Chinese government report estimates that the exotic wildlife consumption trade is a trade worth as much as $73 billion for China.
The World Health Organization did not issue any opposition to the reopening of China’s markets.
“You know how W.H.O. and other parts of the international system work – we don’t have the capacity to police the world,” special coronavirus envoy for the organization Dr. David Nabarro shrugged. “Instead, what we have to do is offer advice and guidance, and there’s very clear advice from the Food and Agriculture Organisation and W.H.O. that said there are real dangers in these kinds of environments.”
In a briefing a few days later, on April 17, Tedros defended the markets.
“Wet markets, as you know, are an important source of affordable food and livelihood for millions of people around the world. But in many places, they have been poorly regulated and poorly maintained,” Tedros said. “W.H.O.’s positions is that, when these markets are allowed to reopen, it should only be under the condition that they conform to stringent food safety and hygiene standards.”
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) April 17, 2020
Rather than opposing the wet markets entirely, the W.H.O. published a guide for how to shop in them.
PETA refuted the claim that wet markets are necessary for the nutrition of residents around them in its statement to Breitbart News.
“Markets throughout Asia typically have an abundance of fresh fruit, vegetables, tofu, seitan, and legumes that are much healthier than meat and less expensive than live animals,” the PETA representative noted. “Staples like beans and whole grains can often be bought cheaply in bulk — sometimes, even at local dollar stores — and are great sources of necessary nutrients like protein and fiber, without the cholesterol and saturated fat found in meat. They are affordable, too, and can be used to make filling dishes like chili and tacos.”
PETA also advised that, “in the U.S., accessible places to buy fresh fruits and veggies include co-ops, farmer’s markets, and other organized food distribution outlets where the members get to pick what is sold (and many of them are currently offering delivery).”
The W.H.O.’s remarks this year regarding wet markets appear to contradict guidelines issued in 2006 that describe them as “optimal” for creating outbreaks.
“The live animal markets or wet markets provide optimal conditions for the zoonotic transfer and evolution of infectious disease agents. Traditional Asian wet markets provide major contact points for people and live animal mixing, making them important potential sources of viral amplification and infection,” the guidelines read.
The decision to reopen the markets triggered outrage around the world outside of animal rights circles.
“It boggles my mind how, when we have so many diseases that emanate out of that unusual human-animal interface, that we just don’t shut it down. I don’t know what else has to happen to get us to appreciate that,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIH) and a member of the White House’s coronavirus pandemic task force, said in response.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said it was “unfathomable” for the W.H.O. not to oppose the reopening of the markets and declared himself “totally puzzled” by their continued existence.
Chinese state media has responded to much of the world’s disgust towards its live animal markets with outrage.
“As it is deeply related to their daily life, angry Chinese people believe such groundless and ridiculous request of closing those markets, which plays a pivotal role in providing them with fresh, affordable and sustainable daily food, is equivalent to ‘forbidding us from eating,’” the state-run Global Times asserted in an “exclusive” that concluded the markets were safe and ethical. “Market vendors decried whoever asked China to close these markets and demanded them to support vendors financially.”
In Southeast Asia, where many of these markets operate, there is growing evidence that residents are overwhelmingly supportive of shutting them down. A World Wildlife Fund (WWF) survey published in March found 93 percent of people polled in the region supported “action by their governments to eliminate illegal and unregulated wildlife markets.”