‘Pushing it underground!’ China expert blast’s Australia’s call for wet market ban

Scientists suspect the recent COVID-19 outbreak is likely to have originated in bats, before possibly spreading to pangolins and making the jump to humans inside the Wuhan Seafood Market – which is reported to have stocked 120 wild animals across 75 species including bats, dogs, pangolins, turtles and snakes. In February, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a temporary ban on trading and consuming wild animals and officials began shutting down markets across the country, but last week, Australia’s Minister for Agriculture – David Littleproud – announced he had asked G20 officials to back a plan to “phase out” wet markets. He told Channel 7: “There are risks with wildlife wet markets and they could be as big a risk to our agricultural industries as they can be to public health.”

But, Dr Richard Thomas, an expert in wildlife trade monitoring at Traffic, has told Express.co.uk that such a decision would have dangerous consequences.

He said: “The authorities obviously put in place this temporary ban on wildlife trade, but there is some longer-term development of new legislation around now.

“It will be interesting to see whether parts of it are made more permanent for certain species.

“I’m not in support of Australia’s call for wet market bans.

I’m not in support of Australia’s call for wet market bans

Dr Richard Thomas

“What you have to be careful of is the terminology – wet market literally just means any fresh produce, so it would be like Britons calling on greengrocers to shut down.”

Dr Thomas, who has a PhD in Chemistry and studied post-doctoral research in Australia, says there needs to be international education on what wet markets are.

He added: “Within some of those wet markets there may be a stall that sells wild animals, and they are what are currently being shut down.

“There have been reports about China reopening wet markets, but they’ve been mixed up, because that’s allowed, it’s just a ban on wildlife.

“The Wuhan market is shut and that closure still remains in place and some are uncertain whether it will ever reopen.”

Since China’s Wildlife Protection Law of 1988, which allows the “domestication and breeding of wildlife,” millions have relied on the trade as a source of livelihood.

Dr Thomas said a blanket ban would have serious financial repercussions, as well as expanding an already dangerous underground black market.

He explained: “In regards to permanent bans, we’re actually arguing that wild-sourced meat is so important for the livelihoods of millions of people in China, it’s a big economic driver too.

“The risk is, if you simply ban it, then you’re going to push the trade underground, which makes it a lot harder to monitor and regulate.

“What we are actually calling for is to try and get experts together in human health, animal health and related areas to try and do a risk assessment.

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“There may be particular species that it is too risky to trade, perhaps a ban might be appropriate for bats for example.”

Dr Thomas said Traffic hopes to be able to educate those involved in the trade, rather than punish them.

He continued: “But a blanket ban, I think the risk with that is just pushing too much underground where you can’t keep an eye on things.

“It’s better to manage markets for mitigation against disease risks, informing wildlife animal keepers that if you mix up different species that’s a risky scenario.

“That enables a situation, viruses may jump between that species barrier.

“If you have a large number of animals in unsanitary conditions, that’s a health risk too, so you need to manage markets.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said yesterday that he would back a push for a global end to wet markets before the World Health Assembly meets next month and claims to have the support of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

He said: “My position has never been directed only to one country, it has been a broad position. 

“These markets exist in many places, just as the next pandemic could come from any country, any country in the world.

“It could occur in any part of the globe, and it is important that we learn the lessons of how this pandemic started, so we can move on any future pandemic, wherever it starts.

“This is why it is an important initiative, and one that I believe has support to occur at the right time. 

“I was speaking to the president of the European Commission last night, we discussed this issue, the Europeans are bringing forward a motion on this matter at the world health assembly. I think it is a very good motion.”

But, Australia has remained one of the strongest criticisers of China’s handling of the pandemic and calls for an independent probe into origins have heightened tensions with Beijing.

Hu Xijin, editor of the state-run Global Times, sent a scathing attack to Mr Morrison on Monday, warning that ties between Australia and its largest trading partner, China, were likely to deteriorate as much as relations between Beijing and Washington had.

Criticising Australia for joining the US in its attacks on China, Hu wrote: “After the epidemic, we need to have more risk awareness when doing business with Australia and also when we send our children to study there.

“Australia is always there, making trouble. 

“It is a bit like chewing gum stuck on the sole of China’s shoes, sometimes you have to find a stone to rub it off.”

His comments echo that of China’s ambassador to Australia last week.

Jingye Cheng, who told Australian media at the weekend that pushing for an inquiry could result in a boycott of the country’s goods, said: “Maybe the ordinary people will say ‘Why should we drink Australian wine? Eat Australian beef?’”

At a briefing on Monday, a spokesman for China’s ministry of foreign affairs, Geng Shuang, described international calls for an inquiry as destined to fail. 

Without naming Australia specifically, he said: “Some politicians are trying to make political manoeuvres over the origin to smear other countries, but their unpopular attempts will never succeed.

“The urgent task for all countries is focusing on international cooperation rather than pointing fingers, demanding accountability and other non-constructive approaches.”

While China remains Australia’s largest export destination, with sales of iron ore, coal and food at the heart of their A$213billion (£110billion) trading relationship, tensions between the countries have risen over the past two years and are now being exacerbated by the pandemic.

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