The World Health Organization said on Friday that while a market in the Chinese city of Wuhan selling live animals has probably played an important role in the emergence of the new coronavirus, it does not recommend that these markets be closed to worldwide.
In a press briefing, WHO food safety and animal disease expert Peter Ben Embarek said live animal markets are essential for providing food and livelihoods to millions of people around the world and that authorities should focus on improving them rather than banning them – even if they can sometimes trigger epidemics in humans.
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“Food security in these environments is quite difficult and so it is not surprising that sometimes we also have these events in the markets,” said Ben Embarek.
He said reducing the risk of transmitting disease from animals to humans in these often overcrowded markets could be addressed in many cases by improving hygiene and food safety standards, including separating live animals from humans.
He added that it was still unclear whether the market in Wuhan for the first dozen cases of coronavirus in China was the true source of the virus or whether it had simply played a role in the spread of the disease.
Ben Embarek said investigations are continuing in China to identify the animal source from which COVID-19 jumped in humans, but studies have since revealed that other species are susceptible to the disease, including cats, tigers, ferrets and dogs.
The identification of other vulnerable species will allow the implementation of certain interventions to prevent future outbreaks.
“We don’t want to create a new reservoir in animals that could continue to create infections in humans,” he said.
Ben Embarek said it could take a considerable amount of time to identify the original animal source of the new coronavirus, explaining that further studies must first be carried out, involving health officials carefully questioning many of the people infected with the virus. beginning of the epidemic, to refine what their interactions with animals were before they got sick.
Scientists should then take samples from the animals to find a close correspondence with the circulating coronavirus in humans.
To date, China has not invited WHO or other external experts to participate in this investigation. Ben Embarek said that China likely has the expertise to conduct such studies and that WHO has not noted any problems in China’s willingness to collaborate with others.