uch of the media coverage has identified a Chinese “wet market” as the source of the widespread Wuhan Coronavirus. Fresh food markets are common around the world, but Chinese wet markets—named for their wet floors, which result from melting blocks of ice used to keep seafood fresh—are unique to Asia. Within wet markets, shoppers can purchase meat, including fish, poultry, snakes, rabbits, and hedgehogs, some of which are slaughtered on site. The Wuhan market in question, Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, which sold seafood as well as live animals such as chickens, donkeys, and foxes, was closed on January 1, 2020, after it was found to be the likely source of the recent Coronavirus outbreak. Just a few weeks later, China closed all markets that sold wildlife and put a temporary ban on the wildlife trade within the country.
The recent Coronavirus outbreak isn’t the first time China’s wet markets have been met with international scrutiny. Between 2002 and 2003, over 774 people in 29 different countries died of several acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)—another virus from the Coronavirus family, which likely originated in wet markets within China’s Guangdong province. Further, pressures to ban the wet markets hail from both inside and outside China. The New York Times reports that a group of 19 Chinese scholars have petitioned the government to do more than just regulate the wildlife trade and ask citizens to stop consuming its goods. One op-ed written by two experts from New York City’s The Wildlife Conservation Society urges China to make its temporary bans on the wildlife trade permanent.
China does have dangerous food standards, a lack of regulation, which defined the United States and other countries before they industrialized, and for many, cleaning up the wildlife markets is an obvious solution to eliminating infectious outbreaks. But in reality, most of the world isn’t prepared to take on the kind of outbreak that has already infected over 14,000 people. PreventEpidemics.org, a tool developed with World Health Organization (WHO) after the 2014 Ebola epidemic, has found that no countries have taken all recommended steps to prepare for the next infectious outbreak.
And in 2019, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and Nuclear Threat Initiative partnered with the Economist Intelligence Unit to develop a similar tool, the Global Health Security (GHS) Index, a metric which assesses whether countries were prepared to stop infectious outbreaks from becoming international catastrophes. Out of 195 countries studied, the average score on the 100-point GHS Index was a bleak 40.2 points. Researchers noted that even countries with more resources would struggle to contain disease outbreaks—most middle- and high-income countries did not score over 50 on the GHS Index. By this metric, China, with a score of 48.5, is about as well-prepared to handle an infectious outbreak as most high-income countries, who scored, on average, 51.9 points on the index.
Ultimately, whether China permanently bans its wildlife trade is only a small piece of the puzzle when it comes to dealing with infectious disease. Global metrics such as PreventEpidemics.org and the GHS Index are evidence that all countries are unprepared to face the threat of pandemics. Many countries lack health systems which can successfully detect and respond to threats of disease. Other states have insufficiently trained disease detectives, limiting their ability to respond quickly to new health threats. In the future, all countries have work to do when it comes to preventing infectious disease.