“SARS coronavirus and wet markets” SARS was the first global disease epidemic worldwide in the 21st century, which caused about 8,000 cases and about 800 deaths.
Many of the first cases of SARS are related to the same place, with which the first cases of COVID-19 are connected: wet markets for live animals in China. Freshly slaughtered animals are considered to have greater nutritional value than many regional consumers, and some look for ‘ye-wei’, the ‘wild taste’, believing that the consumption of Exotic animals bring health and social status benefits.
This combination – fresh slaughtered and exotic animals – leads to the perfect storm for the spread of diseases where crowded cells in these wet markets are contaminated with blood, urine and faeces of countless species, mixed together in a potential pot of infection.
In the 1990s, wildlife trade was widespread, to provide the emerging demand from the city and the middle class, driven, according to the World Bank, mostly from the demand for wildlife products in China. Many wild animals, usually while still alive, enter China via Vietnam from Laos, where the wildlife meat trade became second the largest source of income for rural families. The markets there sell a ton of animals, literally, many of which are extremely endangered.
Then, when demand exceeds supply, wildlife trade between countries was supported by the establishment of intensive animal farms, where a variety of wild animals are often kept in miserable conditions at unnatural stocking densities before being transported and enclosed in cages in the markets for sale.
14 million people are involved in China’s wildlife industry, worth $ 74 billion. The genetic basis of the SARS virus has since been identified of 11 different strains of coronavirus found in Chinese bats, but there are also coronaviruses in the world caused by bats.
The reason why China is the zero point for many deadly coronavirus epidemics may be due to these wet markets. In the case of SARS, the intermediate medium appears to be the masked palm blossom, a cat-like animal that is valuable for its flesh. In addition to being raised for meat, The cat’s penis is dipped in rice wine and used as an aphrodisiac. These animals also produce the most expensive coffee in the world. The so-called fox dung coffee is produced by feeding civets with coffee beans and then… the collection of partially ground grains from their faeces. I don’t know if you can actually see it, but these are actually feces on a civet, a musk-like substance with an oil-like consistency secreted by the anal glands, gives coffee its characteristic taste and smell.
One would say that this unique drink is good to the last drop. Coronaviruses acquired from civets in wildlife markets were almost identical to the SARS virus. While civets on wildlife farms, suppliers to the markets were largely free of infection, over 80% of civet samples on the markets showed evidence of exposure. This suggests that most infections occurred in markets probably due to a combination of overpopulated mixed species and the immunosuppressive effect of stress. Livestock markets not only allow interspecific transmission, the amplification of the virus and human exposure, but also changes in the virus.
SARS coronavirus takes advantage of the opportunities provided from the wet markets in southern China to adapt to the palm blossom and the people. Obviously, civets are not just passive conductors of the virus; they also appear to be incubators for mutations that adapt to humans in the virus itself. The virus uses its crown to attack like a key in a lock and attach to the receptors of the carrier to enter the cells of its victims. To pass from infection from one species to another, the genes that encode the spikes must mutate, to enter the receptors of the new carrier. A new lock requires a new key.
Both SARS-coronavirus and SARS-coronavirus 2, the virus that causes COVID-19 is attached to a specific enzyme, which covers the cells of our lungs. Until the time of the mish-masha with the bats and the flowers, the attachment spikes of the virus were only two mutations from unlocking the configuration that is suitable for human receptors, and so the human-to-human SARS epidemic was created. Since the initial SARS attack ended in 2003, new human cases have been confirmed, associated with a restaurant that serves civets. Unlike most previous cases, the new victims had only mild symptoms and did not appear to have infected other people.
Samples of palm blossom viruses both in the local market and in the restaurant, turned out to be almost identical to those found in the new, more moderate cases in humans.
The new viruses in inflorescences shared only one of the two mutations, carrying the virus from the flower to a person, which are found in all other new patients, but none of the coronavirus mutations of the previous year. These findings suggest that intermediate carriers may help to transform coronaviruses from the primary reservoir of bats to greater human infectivity.
Yes, bats are caught in Asia for meat and many bat hunters report being bitten. Yes, the processing and consumption of poorly cooked bat meat still practiced in China, Guam and other parts of Asia. But it seems that the intermediate carriers may have needed a foundation stone, so that bat coronaviruses can adapt to humans, to cause a human pandemic. And it’s hard to imagine a system that is better designed, to speed up this process, from wet markets to live animals.
In response to the SARS attack, the Chinese government imposed strict control of wildlife markets, including a ban on the sale of florets. Although the final closure of livestock markets has been called “The strongest brake on the next outbreak of a zoonotic disease”, within a few months the ban was lifted and trade resumed as before. The flowers were on the menu again.
If the Chinese authorities had learned their lesson from SARS, had listened to the experts and if they had imposed a definitive ban on the markets for live animals, perhaps people would not now suffer from the worst pandemic of the century.