Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles It was New Years Eve, 2019 when health officials in China admitted they had a problem. Health authorities have activated their most serious response level. After an outbreak of a new type of viral pneumonia in central China. A rapidly growing number of people were developing a dry cough and fever, before getting pneumonia. And for some, it turned fatal. Doctors have named the disease COVID-19 or "coronavirus disease, 2019" indicating that a type of virus is causing the illness. When they'd tried to trace its origin, they found a likely source. This food market in Wuhan. Out of the first 41 patients, 27 had been here. It wasn't conclusive evidence, but Chinese officials quickly shut down the market. They had seen this happen before at a place just like this. Health officials are trying to get a grip on an alarming outbreak of SARS. The virus originated in mainland China. Then spread across the country. The disease had been festering for months in southern China. In 2002, a coronavirus had emerged at a very similar market in southern China. It eventually reached 29 countries and killed nearly 800 people. Now, 18 years later, this coronavirus is in at least 71 countries and has already killed over 3100 people. So, what do these markets have to do with the coronavirus outbreak and why is it happening in China? Vox atlas. A lot of the viruses that make us sick, actually originate in animals. Some of the viruses that cause the flu come from birds and pigs. HIV/AIDS comes from chimpanzees. The deadly Ebola virus likely originates in bats. And in the case of the 2019 coronavirus, there is some evidence it went from a bat to a pangolin before infecting a human. While viruses are very good at jumping between species, it's rare for a deadly one to make this journey all the way to humans. Thats because it would need all these hosts to encounter each other at some point. That's where the Wuhan market comes in. It's a wet market. A kind of place where live animals are slaughtered and sold for consumption. It was not a surprise at all. And I think that it was not a surprise to many scientists. Peter Li is a professor and expert on China's animal trade. The cages are stacked one over another. Animals at the bottom are often soaked with all kinds of liquid. Animal excrement, pus, blood. Whatever the liquid they are receiving from the animals above. That's exactly how a virus can jump from one animal to another. If that animal then comes in contact with or is consumed by a human, the virus could potentially infect them. And if the virus then spreads to other humans, it causes an outbreak. Wet markets are scattered all over the world, but the ones in China are particularly well known because they offer a wide variety of animals, including wildlife. This is a sample menu, reportedly from the market in Wuhan. These animals are from all over the world and each one has the potential to carry its own viruses to the market. The reason all these animals are in the same market is because of a decision China's government made decades ago. Back in the 1970s, China was falling apart. Famine had killed more than 36 million people. And the communist regime, which controlled all food production, was failing to feed its more than 900 million people. In 1978, on the verge of collapse, the regime gave up this control and allowed private farming. While large companies increasingly dominated the production of popular foods like pork and poultry, some smaller farmers turned to catching and raising wild animals as a way to sustain themselves. At the very beginning, it was mostly peasant household, backyard operations of turtles, for example. That's how wildlife farming started to get off the ground. And since it started to feed and sustain people, the Chinese government backed it. So it was imperative for the government to encourage people, you know, to make a living through whatever productive activities they can find themselves in. If you can lift yourself out of poverty, no matter what you are doing, that's okay. But then in 1988, the government made a decision that changed the shape of wildlife trade in China. They enacted the Wildlife Protection Law which designated the animals as "resources owned by the state" and protected people engaged in the "utilization of wildlife resources." That's one of the most devastating problems of the law. Because if you designate the wildlife as "natural resources," that means it's something you can use for human benefit. The law also "encouraged the domestication and breeding of wildlife." And with that, an industry was born. Small local farms turned into industrial-sized operations. For example, this bear farm started with just three, and eventually grew to more than 1,000 bears. Bigger populations meant greater chances that a sick animal could spread disease. Farmers were also raising a wide variety of animals. Which meant more viruses on the farms. Nonetheless, these animals were funneled into the wet markets for profit. While this legal wildlife farming industry started booming, it simultaneously provided cover for an illegal wildlife industry. Endangered animals like tigers, rhinoceroses, and pangolins, were trafficked into China. By the early 2000s, these markets were teeming with wild animals when the inevitable happened. The latest on the deadly SARS virus, the worldwide death toll up again today. China has reported more than 1,400 cases of infection nationwide. It is what health officials have feared all along. In 2003, the SARS outbreak was traced to a wet market here, in southern China. Scientists found traces of the virus in farmed civet cats. Chinese officials quickly shut down the markets and banned wildlife farming. But just a few months after the outbreak, the Chinese government declared 54 species of wildlife animals, including civet cats, legal to farm again. By 2004, the wildlife-farming industry was worth an estimated 100 billion yuan. And it exerted significant influence over the Chinese government. The wildlife farming industry was tiny in China's gigantic GDP. But the industry has enormous lobbying capability. It's because of this influence that the Chinese government has allowed these markets to grow over the years. In 2016, for example, the government sanctioned the farming of some endangered species like tigers, and pangolins. By 2018, the wildlife industry had grown to 148 billion yuan and had developed clever marketing tactics to keep the markets around. The industry has been promoting these wildlife animals as tonic products, as bodybuilding, as sex enhancing, and, of course, as disease fighting. None of the claims can hold water. Yet, these products became popular with an influential portion of China's population. The majority of the people in China do not eat wildlife animals. Those people who consume these wildlife animals are the rich and the powerful. A small minority It's this minority that the Chinese government chose to favor over the safety of the rest of its population. This parochial commercial interest of a small number of wildlife eaters are hijacking China's national interest. Soon after the coronavirus outbreak, the Chinese government shut down thousands of wet markets and temporarily banned wildlife trade again. Organizations around the world have been urging China to make the ban permanent. Chinese social media, in particular, has been flooded with petitions to ban it for good this time. In response, China is reportedly amending the Wildlife Protection Law that encouraged wildlife farming decades ago. But unless these actions lead to a permanent ban on wildlife farming, outbreaks like this one are bound to happen again. For a bunch more information about China's wet-markets, viruses, and wildlife, we have an episode on our Netflix show called ”The Next Pandemic, explained." It talks about why a coronavirus could spark the next pandemic and what the world's experts are doing to stop it. That's on our Netflix show Explained, check it out.