LANGFANG, China – The typical market in China has fruits and vegetables, butchered beef, pork and lamb, whole plucked chickens — with heads and beaks attached — and live crabs and fish, spewing water out of churning tanks. Some sell more unusual fare, including live snakes, turtles and cicadas, guinea pigs, bamboo rats, badgers, hedgehogs, otters, palm civets, even wolf cubs.
The markets are fixtures in scores of Chinese cities, and now, for at least the second time in two decades, they are the source of an epidemic that has spread fear, taxed the Communist Party bureaucracy and exposed the epidemiological risks that can spawn in places where humans and wildlife converge.
The novel coronavirus that has already killed at least 42 and sickened more than 1,370 in China and around the world is believed to have spread from exactly one of these places: a wholesale market in Wuhan, a city in central China, where vendors legally sold live animals from stalls in close quarters with hundreds of others.
"This is where you get new and emerging diseases that the human population has never seen before," said Kevin Olival, a biologist and vice president of research with EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit research organization, who has tracked previous outbreaks.
While the exact path of the pathogen has not yet been established, government officials and scientists said the new contagion had ominous similarities with the outbreak of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, in late 2002, which killed nearly 800 people and sickened thousands more around the world.
Now, as the government struggles to contain public anger over the outbreak, it is facing calls to do more to regulate or even ban the sale of wildlife — and growing questions about why so little has changed in the 17 years since SARS.
That disease was ultimately traced to a coronavirus that jumped from bats to Asian palm civets, a catlike creature prized as a delicacy in southern China, and then to humans involved in the wildlife trade there. According to officials and scientists, the new virus also appears to have originated in bats and made the jump to another mammal, though which one is not yet clear.
The latest outbreak — the scope of which is still unfolding — has led to calls inside and outside of China for better regulations or even an end to this kind of culinary adventurism. While turtle and boar meat are not uncommon in Chinese restaurants, game meats such as civet cats, snakes or pangolins tend to be considered specialties only in some regions. Their consumption is driven as much by the desire to flaunt wealth as by a mix of superstition and belief about the health benefits of wildlife.
Once the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan was identified as the most likely source of this outbreak in December, the authorities promptly closed it, though it was not clear what happened to the animals that had been for sale there. Officials announced only on Wednesday that they had banned the sale of wild animals throughout the province. Two other provinces, Henan and Inner Mongolia, also imposed suspensions on the trade this past week.