China temporarily bans wildlife trade in wake of outbreak

BEIJING (AP) — Chinese authorities announced a temporary ban on the trade of wild animals yesterday following a viral outbreak in Wuhan, saying they will “severely investigate and punish” violators.

Local authorities will “strengthen inspections and severely investigate and punish those who are found in violation of the provisions of this announcement,” read the ban issued by three government agencies.

No wildlife can be transported or sold in any markets or online, according to text of the announcement in state media. Suspected violators will be sent to security services, and their properties will be closed and sealed. Legal breeding centres will be quarantined.

The ban will continue until “the epidemic situation is lifted nationwide” in order to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus and block potential sources of infection and transmission.

The three agencies also opened a hotline where people can report violations, and called on the public to refrain from eating wild animal meat. The agencies are the State Administration of Market Regulation, Ministry of Agricultural and Rural Affairs and the National Forestry and Grassland Administration.

The wildlife ban comes as the new virus accelerated its spread in China with 56 deaths, and 1,975 infections. China cut off trains, planes and other links to Wuhan on Wednesday, as well as public transportation within the city, and has steadily expanded a lockdown to 16 surrounding cities with a combined population of more than 50 million — greater than that of New York, London, Paris and Moscow combined.

Demand for wild animals in Asia, especially China, is hastening the extinction of many species, on top of posing a perennial health threat that authorities have failed to fully address despite growing risks of a global pandemic. In an earlier response to the crisis in Wuhan, China’s Agriculture Ministry issued an order for tightened controls on trade in wildlife. A group of 19 prominent researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the nation’s top universities had called for the government in China to crack down on wildlife markets such as the one at the centre of the Wuhan outbreak. Illegal trade flourishes in “loopholes” of the legal wildlife trade in China and increases the probability of an outbreak, the group wrote in an open letter posted on Weibo.

Anti-Poaching Special Squad police gather outside a store suspected of trafficking wildlife in Guangde city in central China’s Anhui Province on January 9. PHOTO: AFP

“This is the hidden danger for the trade and consumption” of wild animals, the letter read. They advocate vastly increasing on-site inspections and government oversight of all wildlife markets. The New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, meanwhile, appealed for an end to wildlife markets everywhere, not just in China.

Zoonotic diseases, or those contracted by humans that originated in other species, account for a large share of human infectious illnesses. Not all of them come from the wildlife trade: rabies is endemic across many species and one of the biggest causes of death in the developing world.

But mixing species of wild animals increases the risk of diseases mutating and growing more virulent as they spread in unregulated markets, experts said.

The emergence of such diseases is a “numbers game,” said Executive Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Health Programme Christian Walzer.

“If these markets persist, and human consumption of illegal and unregulated wildlife persists, then the public will continue to face heightened risks from emerging new viruses, potentially more lethal and the source of future pandemic spread,” he said. “These are perfect laboratories for creating opportunities for these viruses to emerge.”

Researchers have not yet announced a definitive source for this latest outbreak, which like many other viruses can infect multiple species.

One of the first measures taken by Wuhan authorities was to close down the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where 41 of the first cases originated. “That’s the big black box right now,” said Jon Epstein, an epidemiologist with the Ecohealth Alliance.

He was in China following the 2002-2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which was traced to consumption of wild animals in the southern city of Guangzhou. Epstein helped the ongoing global effort over nearly two decades to find the wild source of that virus, which sickened more than 8,000 and killed less than 800. SARS has been linked to various animals, including bats and the cat-like masked palm civet.

Bats are known to harbour coronaviruses, but scientists have yet to fully understand the new virus and how it leapt from animals to people.