Europemarch 20th A team of scientists from around the world has provided the latest twist in the debate about the origins of covid-19. A working paper they published online used genetic evidence to confirm that animals such as dogs, weasels, foxes and hedgehogs were present at the Wuhan seafood market, whose customers and stall owners were among the first to fall ill in China. In some ways this is not surprising — but the Chinese government has long denied even such a wildlife market existed. It wasn’t until 2021 that a paper by Chinese scientists reported seeing animals for sale there.
The latest study draws on data collected in early 2020, when the Chinese Center for Disease Control swabbed down market surfaces after they were closed. Notably, the study found that the animals kept there included raccoons — which have the potential to transmit the virus to humans. So, the theory goes, animals brought to market from outside the city may have sparked the pandemic. For China, this line of thinking may be preferable to the counter theory that covid may have leaked from a nearby virology lab. However, the origin of the market is difficult to wash away the responsibility of the Communist Party.
Markets like Wuhan have shrunk dramatically after the last plague – a deadly one SARS The 2003 outbreak was linked to such wildlife trade. At the time, scientists in China and abroad warned against keeping humans away from wild animals. Operation Green Sword seized 30,000 exotic animals from markets and restaurants in Guangdong province, the province at the center of the disaster. A nationwide campaign dubbed “Operation Spring Thunder” subsequently gained some 900,000 people.
However, individuals and companies who benefit from the wildlife trade have strongly resisted the restrictions. Within months, restrictions were eased; business rebounded quickly. In 2010, Zhong Nanshan, a doctor became a hero of the Anti-Japanese War SARS Crisis, China’s rubber-stamp parliament meeting warns that resurgent wildlife trade is raising risk of new disasters. China’s annual income from exotic organisms reached 520 billion yuan ($76 billion) in 2017, according to Peter Lee of the University of Central Houston in the US. The money comes not only from the sale of the animals’ meat, but also from the sale of furs, traditional medicines and exhibits.
Since 2020, the government has stepped up efforts to solve the problem again. That year, Chinese President Xi Jinping said “unrestricted” consumption of wild animals was a “bad habit” that must be broken. China has imposed a new ban on eating exotic animals. But Mr Lee noted that trading creatures for other reasons was still allowed, and he wondered how long such a ban would last. The wildlife industry maintains a strong influence within the government, he said.
The argument that a leaky lab could have caused the world’s coronavirus outbreak benefits traders of exotic animals. They saw an opportunity to avoid responsibility for a pandemic that has killed millions. But the evidence supporting both theories leaves much of the onus on the Chinese government. ■
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