The World Health Organisation has backed away from supporting a global ban on open-air slaughter markets despite the coronavirus pandemic, prompting objections that such places are breeding grounds for diseases.
Peter Ben Embarek, a WHO food safety and animal diseases scientist, said live animal markets were critical to providing food and livelihoods for millions of people and that authorities should focus on improving them rather than outlawing them – even though they can spark epidemics in humans.
Many scientists have said an animal market in Wuhan, China, was likely to have played a significant role in the emergence of the new coronavirus, possibly spreading it from bats via pangolins, but the WHO is not recommending that such markets be shut down globally.
“Food safety in these environments is rather difficult and therefore it’s not surprising that sometimes we also have these events happening within markets,” Dr Embarek said.
Reducing the risk of disease transmission from animals to humans in often-overcrowded markets could be addressed by improving hygiene and food safety standards, including separating live animals from humans, he argued.
Animals are sold from cages and street stalls in southeast Asia, India, Africa and South America, often to be slaughtered on the spot, but also for the pet trade and for their parts to be used in “medicines”.
But Teresa Telecky, vice president for wildlife at Humane Society International (HSI), said: “The remarks did not address the issue of wildlife sold for food in these markets – an important distinction, given scientific evidence that diseases such as Covid-19 and Sars originated in wildlife markets.
“The wildlife trade caused the Covid-19 pandemic, and WHO has an obligation to advise countries to lower the risk of another pandemic by outlawing live wild animal markets.”
Mark Jones, a vet from the Born Free Foundation, said: “No one knows where the next pandemic might originate from but wildlife markets are a big risk. The WHO should, in our view, take a precautionary approach.
“It will be nigh-on impossible to introduce effective sanitary measures across wildlife markets to eliminate the risk.”
Despite growing international calls for tighter restrictions on such markets and the use of wildlife in traditional medicine, an investigation last month by The Independent found that in parts of China and southeast Asia, the trade continues, with many stall-holders opening up again after a brief lull.
Last month, WHO chiefs urged countries to close live markets down because of the risks they caused.
Director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said “wet” markets – those where areas are hosed down – were “an important source of affordable food and livelihood for millions of people all over the world” but that in many places, they have been poorly regulated and poorly maintained.
“WHO’s position is that when these markets are allowed to reopen, it should only be on the condition that they conform to stringent food safety and hygiene standards,” he added.
But, he said, governments “must rigorously enforce bans on the sale and trade of wildlife for food”.
Ms Telecky called on the WHO to clarify Dr Embarek’s remarks and “reiterate that wild animals should not be sold at these markets”.
The food safety expert said it was still unclear whether the Wuhan market was the source of the virus or merely spread the disease further, and that studies have since found other species are susceptible, including cats, tigers, ferrets and dogs.
Identifying other vulnerable species will allow certain steps to be put in place to prevent future outbreaks, he said. “We don’t want to create a new reservoir in animals that could continue to create infections in humans.”
China has not invited WHO or other external experts to be part of its investigation into the outbreak, but Dr Embarek said China was likely to have the necessary expertise to conduct such studies and WHO has not noted any problems in China’s willingness to collaborate with others.
Last month, more than 200 conservation groups across the world signed an open letter to the WHO calling on it to do everything possible to prevent new diseases emerging from wildlife trade and spreading into global pandemics.
HSI published a white paper detailing the link between wildlife markets and Covid-19. The Independent is campaigning for stricter regulation of world trade in wildlife.