Australia wants greater scrutiny of wildlife wet markets following the outbreak of COVID-19 (Reuters: Ann Wang)
Australia has ratcheted up pressure on China to look into the health risks associated with wildlife wet markets as the world continues to battle the deadly spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
- The Government has called for a scientific investigation of wet markets
- Agriculture Minister David Littleproud says people need to know the food they eat is safe
- More than 2.5 million people have been infected with coronavirus worldwide
Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud has sought international support for a scientific study into the markets.
Wet markets offer live animals to be sold alongside other fresh foods and are popular in Asia, parts of Africa and the Middle East.
The Nationals deputy leader told a virtual meeting of G20 agriculture ministers on Tuesday that governments needed to “acknowledge risks and take action” in regard to wet markets.
“These markets are a source of biosecurity and human health risks and they need to be scientifically investigated so the world can have some confidence in their integrity,” Mr Littleproud said.
“Our people should have confidence that the food they eat is safe, we owe it to our domestic population and our international markets,” he said.
The Australian Government believes there is a “very real likelihood” that the coronavirus outbreak came from a wet market in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
In recent days, Australia has called for an investigation into China’s handling of the initial outbreak and Prime Minister Scott Morrison has sought international support for greater powers for the World Health Organisation (WHO).
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Chief vet says markets can improve
Australia’s chief veterinarian, Dr Mark Schipp, said it was important to understand the risks that wildlife wet markets posed to human health.
“Of the last six pandemic or large-scale emerging diseases since 1980, all of them have been associated with wild animals,” he said.
“[That includes] AIDS, SARS, swine influenza, the Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome, Ebola and now COVID-19, so all of those originate in animals.
“Two of those — SARS and COVID-19 — have been linked to wildlife markets in China specifically.”
Dr Schipp said “all of the evidence” pointed to the COVID-19 outbreak originating in a market in Wuhan but acknowledged the sensitivities of calling for greater scrutiny of such markets.
“It’s a very sensitive topic and one that is not very receptive to advice from a white male person coming from a western country which doesn’t deal with these issues of food insecurity,” he said.
Dr Schipp is also the president of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and has been working with WHO and Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to address some of the concerns around wet markets.
“In many countries … there is dire food insecurity and wildlife wet markets are an important source of protein and there is no viable alternative at this stage,” he said.
“However, those markets can be improved in terms of food safety and hygiene and measures taken to ensure there is distance between wildlife, domestic animals and people to break down that transmission that continues to emerge in these pandemic situations.”
The outbreak is believed to have started in Wuhan which was placed into lockdown for several weeks. (AP: Ng Han Guan)
China tensions rising
Mr Morrison wants international support to give the WHO — or another body — the equivalent powers of a weapons inspector to avoid another catastrophic pandemic.
One of the limitations of the WHO that Mr Morrison wants to change is that international officials must be invited by nations before being allowed to investigate.
Mr Morrison raised the idea with the leaders of the United States, Germany and France.
China is Australia’s largest trading partner, with a third of Australian exports sold there, including $120 billion worth of coal and iron ore.
But Australia’s relationship with China is becoming increasingly sensitive as senior government ministers speak out in favour of further research on the pandemic’s origins.
Earlier this week, Foreign Minister Marise Payne urged China to allow transparency in a study of the pandemic’s spread, including China’s handling of the outbreak.
Health Minister Greg Hunt has also previously described a decision by the World Health Organisation to support the reopening of China’s wet markets as “unfathomable”.
China issued a rebuke of Australia earlier this week, with the nation’s embassy in Australia accusing Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton of being a mouthpiece for the United States.
The embassy described calls by Australian politicians for greater scrutiny of China’s handling of the coronavirus crisis as “pitiful”.
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