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China bans wild animal trade until coronavirus epidemic is eliminated

A security guard stands outside the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where the coronavirus is thought to have originated. (Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images)

TOKYO — China banned the trade of wild animals on Sunday until the coronavirus epidemic has been eliminated across the country, after evidence emerged that the disease was transmitted to humans through a market in the city of Wuhan that traded in game meat.

Experts say the country is paying a heavy price after the government failed to learn one of the most important lessons of the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic 17 years ago: that diseases can easily mutate and spread to humans in markets where different species of live wild animals are kept in proximity, often in unhygienic conditions.

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The new restrictions ban the transport and sale of wild animals, specifically barring markets, supermarkets, restaurants and e-commerce platforms from trading in any form.

China pledged that inspections would be stepped up, gave a hotline number for the public to report illegal wildlife trade and said violations would be dealt with “severely” in accordance with the law.

“Consumers should fully understand the health risks of eating wild animals, stay away from ‘game’ and eat healthily,” said the regulations, which were jointly issued by the Agriculture Ministry, the State Forestry and Grasslands Administration and the State Administration for Market Regulation.

But the regulations will remain in place only while China grapples with the epidemic, raising the question of whether the wildlife trade will be allowed to bounce back, as it did after an initial clampdown following the SARS outbreak.

Christian Walzer, chief global veterinarian at the Wildlife Conservation Society, called the measure an “important first step” but said the ban needs to be permanent.

“The pattern will keep repeating itself until we ban, not only in China, but in other countries, the sale of wildlife, specifically for food and in food markets,” he said in a statement.

Peter Knights, founder of ­WildAid, said the current crisis might have been averted if the ban after SARS had been permanent. “Surely it’s time for an advanced country like China to reassess the viability of a tiny industry that risks global pandemic, national image, animal cruelty and conservation concerns,” he said.

The Washington Post spoke to two people inside Wuhan, China, during a lockdown, as authorities scrambled to contain a deadly coronavirus outbreak. (Video: The Washington Post)

SARS was thought to have originated in masked palm civets and traced to a market in the southeastern Guangdong province. It ended up killing more than 750 people in China and elsewhere.

Chinese scientists say the latest coronavirus outbreak appears to have spread from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in the central city of Wuhan.

Despite its name, the market was selling a huge variety of wild animals for consumption, including live cats and dogs, turtles, snakes, rats, hedgehogs and marmots. Menus and signboards posted online listed foxes, wolf cubs, monkeys and masked palm civets, among other animals.

The city government closed the seafood market at the beginning of January after many of the first cases of coronavirus emerged in people working there.

China remains a major consumer of wild and endangered animals for meat, as well as for traditional medicine. But medical and wildlife experts hope this epidemic will help to change attitudes.

In a commentary published Friday, state China Central Television condemned the consumption of wild animals and called the new coronavirus a “game meat virus.”

“It rankles that some people out there are obsessed about game meat and eat to their heart’s content because of gluttony and greed,” it said. “They harvested this evil fruit, making a whole city, a whole country, and even the entire human race pay such a heavy price; and the worst is yet to come.”

The strongly worded piece asked whether those “who love to eat, poach, and trade wild animals have been shaken by this, are feeling the least guilty conscience, or have confessed to their wrongdoing deep down,” and it lamented that the illegal trade in wild animals was not closed after SARS.

“Some people are still taking chances and opening the Pandora’s box again and again,” it added. “How can we be so forgetful?”

Studies published in the Lancet medical journal Friday confirmed the disease was closely related to the coronaviruses found in Chinese horseshoe bats, but experts say they believe another species was involved in transmitting the disease to humans.

China is far from alone in experiencing diseases that originated in animals and were passed to humans. Recent epidemics of this nature include avian influenza, swine influenza, SARS and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome), as well as bovine spongiform encephalopathy — mad cow disease.

Li reported from Beijing.

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