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Why Wet Markets Are The Perfect Place To Spread Disease


The coronavirus was first detected in people who had connections to a seafood market in Wuhan, China. It's known as a wet market. It's this complex of stalls where people sell live fish, meat and wild animals. Researchers think this virus probably mutated from a strain that's common in animals and then jumped over to humans in that market. NPR's Jason Beaubien went to check out a wet market in Hong Kong, and he brought us this.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Once you walk into one of these places, it's quite obvious why they're called wet markets. Live fish in open tubs are splashing water all over the place. The countertops of the stalls are red with blood as fish are gutted and filleted right in front of the customers' eyes. There are live turtles and crustaceans climbing over each other in boxes. Melting ice adds to the slush on the floor. So things are wet.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: These scallops are from Japan.

BEAUBIEN: A woman who's selling clams and abalone and scallops at the Tai Po market only wants to give her name as Mrs. Wong. Some people blame wet markets like this one for spreading disease, which she says isn't fair. Wong doesn't think she's any more likely to get sick here than in some other crowded place.

MRS WONG: (Speaking Cantonese).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: She is not really that worried because she thinks that it's much cleaner in a Hong Kong market. It's so different from what's happening in mainland.

BEAUBIEN: There are markets like this all over the world, where fish, poultry and other animals are slaughtered and butchered right on the premises. Researchers say that the wet markets in mainland China, however, are problematic for several reasons. First, they often have many different kinds of exotic animals. The stress of captivity weakens the animals' immune systems and creates an environment where mutating viruses can slip from one species to another. When that happens, a new strain of a virus can occasionally get a foothold in humans, as happened with SARS in 2002 and this current outbreak.


BEAUBIEN: The variety of animals for sale in the Tai Po market in Hong Kong is relatively slim compared to the assortment of snakes and animals and birds on offer in some markets in mainland China. The only live poultry here are chickens, which are kept behind the butchered pork section of the market.

CHAN SHU CHUNG: (Speaking Cantonese).

BEAUBIEN: Chan Shu Chung (ph) has been selling chickens here for more than 10 years. Customers select a live bird, Chung puts a plastic tag with a number on the chicken's foot, gives the customer a matching tag - sort of like a coat check. Fifteen minutes later, the shoppers can come back and pick up their chicken meat.

CHUNG: (Speaking Cantonese).

BEAUBIEN: Chung says they do their best to keep the area clean. They wash down the stalls regularly and disinfect them to stop germs from spreading. He's one of the few people in the market who's not wearing a face mask. Almost everyone in Hong Kong now wears face masks in public since the coronavirus outbreak started. Chung just got back from China, where he says people are terrified of the coronavirus but not him.

CHUNG: (Speaking Cantonese).

BEAUBIEN: He says he always gets his annual vaccines, and he's strong, so he believes he's protected against this new disease. There is no vaccine, however, available yet for this new illness. Chung adds confidently that he's even immune to SARS, for which there is also no commercial vaccine. But he does keep his chicken stalls incredibly clean, which public health officials say is an important step in stopping the spread of diseases, so maybe he's onto something. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Hong Kong. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.