Suspend sale of wild animals to prevent viral outbreaks, says WHO
Updated 19:32, 14-Apr-2021

Governments must immediately suspend the sale of live wild mammals in traditional food markets to prevent viral outbreaks of diseases like COVID-19, urged the World Health Organization (WHO) and its partner organizations in an interim guideline released on Tuesday.

"National authorities should suspend the trade in live wild mammals for food or breeding purposes and close sections of food markets selling these animals as an emergency measure," said the WHO, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).

The interim guidance highlights the growing emergence of zoonotic diseases because of wildlife trade, consumption and breeding of wild animals from various food markets, also known as wet markets.  

Many mammals have been found to be reservoirs of highly infectious viruses, which jump on to humans through intermediary mammals in traditional markets. The presence of mammals and non-mammals in these markets becomes a perfect Petri dish for viral outbreaks, according to the guideline.

During the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003, researchers found civet cats acted as intermediary hosts of the SARS-CoV-1 virus leading to human to human transmission. The outbreak infected more than 8,000 people and killed 800.

Scientists are still struggling to find the intermediary host of SARS-CoV-2, which has caused the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Initial finding points out that the virus jumped from bats to pangolins and then to humans, leading to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The virus might have traveled from a wildlife breeding farm to a wet market, where it found an intermediary host, infecting humans, leading experts from the WHO have hypothesized.  

In order to prevent such frequent viral outbreaks, the WHO, UNEP and OIE have issued a six-pronged guideline for governments. The top recommendation is to formulate emergency regulations to suspend live wild animal sales in traditional food markets.

It also suggests immediate improvement in hygiene and sanitation standards in traditional food markets to reduce the risk of transmission of zoonotic diseases and person-to-person transmission of disease.

For preventing close interaction between live animals known for hosting infectious viruses, the governments have also been told to develop food regulations. These regulations should control the farming and sale of wild animals that are intended to be placed on the market for human consumption.  

To ensure effective implementation of the regulations, intensive training of food and veterinary inspectors is required for constant monitoring of wet markets. But apart from regulating the trade of animals, countries have been advised to strengthen surveillance systems for zoonotic pathogens for early containment of outbreaks.

The guideline also recommends community participation by launching food safety information campaigns for market traders, stallholders, and consumers.

(Cover: Cats are caged along with chickens at Qingping market in Guangzhou November 16, 2007. /Reuters)

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