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  • 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 calledThe 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.

It was New Years Eve, 2019 when health officials in China admitted they had a problem.

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Why new diseases keep appearing in China

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    Mackenzie posted on 2020/03/20
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