The coronavirus spreading in China and the SARS outbreak of 2003 have two things in common: Both are from the coronavirus family, and both likely started in wet markets.
At such markets, outdoor stalls are squeezed together to form narrow lanes, where locals and visitors shop for cuts of meat and ripe produce. A stall selling hundreds of caged chickens may abut a butcher counter, where meat is chopped as nearby dogs watch hungrily. Some vendors hock skinned hares, while seafood stalls display glistening fish and shrimp.
Wet markets put people and live and dead animals — dogs, chickens, pigs, snakes, civets, and more — in constant close contact. That makes it easy for a virus to jump from animal to human.
On January 22, authorities in Wuhan, China — where the current outbreak started — banned the trade of live animals at wet markets. The specific market where the outbreak might have begun, the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, was shuttered on January 1. The coronavirus that emerged there has so far killed at least 360 people and infected more than 17,400.
“Poorly regulated, live-animal markets mixed with illegal wildlife trade offer a unique opportunity for viruses to spillover from wildlife hosts into the human population,” the Wildlife Conservation Society said in a statement.
Coronaviruses are zoonotic diseases, meaning they spread to people from animals. In the case of SARS, and likely this Wuhan coronavirus outbreak as well, bats were the original hosts. The bats then infected other animals, which transmitted the virus to humans.
Here’s what Chinese wet markets look like.
The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan closed on January 1 after it was found to be the most likely starting point for the outbreak of this coronavirus, called 2019-nCov.
A 61-year-old man was the first person to die from the virus. According to Bloomberg, he was a regular shopper at the Huanan wet market, which sold more than seafood.
Reports indicate that before the Huanan market closed, vendors there sold seafood, meat, and live animals, including chickens, donkeys, sheep, pigs, foxes, badgers, bamboo rats, hedgehogs, and snakes.
A wet market in Beijing on July 3, 2007.
Wet markets like Huanan are common in China. They’re called wet markets because vendors often slaughter animals in front of customers.
“That means there’s a lot of skinning of dead animals in front of shoppers and, as a result, aerosolizing of all sorts of things,” Emily Langdon, an infectious disease specialist at University of Chicago Medicine, wrote in an article.
A report published on Friday challenges the idea that virus emerged in the Huanan wet market, however.
A vender at a wet market in Nanning, China shows a pair of rabbits to buyers on January 28, 2004.
Robert Ng/South China Morning Post/Getty
Chinese scientists found that the first reported case of the Wuhan coronavirus from December had no link to the wet market, according to Science, which cited a report published in the medical journal, The Lancet.
What’s more, 13 of 41 coronavirus cases had no link to the Huanan marketplace, the researchers said. More research is needed to pinpoint the outbreak’s starting point with certainty.