By Daniel R. Lucey MD, MPH, FIDSA
Last month a paper titled “Animal sales from Wuhan wet markets immediately prior to the COVID-19 pandemic” by Xiao et al., in Nature Scientific Reports listed 18 mammalian species sold May 2017 -November 2019 in Wuhan wet markets (Table 1). These mammalian species included masked palm civets (Paguma larvata) and racoon dogs (Nyctereutes procyonoides), species linked with SARS-CoV-1 in 2003 and known to be susceptible to SARS-CoV-2. Mink (neovision vison) were also sold, and the authors state these mink: . . . originated from fur farms — noting that SARS-CoV-2 has been reported in mink farms in Europe and North America.” (paragraph 3 of the Discussion section).
Notably, Figure 2 shows photos of caged live mammals in the Huanan seafood market including a racoon dog, amur hedgehogs, Chinese bamboo rat, marmots and hog badger.
In sharp contrast, the WHO-China joint team report from their work in Wuhan Jan. 14-Feb. 10, 2021 and posted March 30, 2021 (p. 98): “Although there is photographic evidence in a published paper that live mammals were sold at the Huanan market in the past (2014) (36) (date confirmed by author in statement Annex F) and unverified media reports in 2020, no verified reports of live mammals being sold around 2019 were found.” (my bolding added for emphasis and contrast with Figure 2 of the paper by Xiao et al. above).
Xiao et al., also state in the next to last paragraph of the Discussion section: “Furthermore, the WHO reports that market authorities claimed all live and frozen animals sold in the Huanan market were acquired from farms officially licensed for breeding and quarantine, as such no illegal wildlife trade was identified. In reality, however, because China has no regulatory authority regulating animal trading conducted by small-scale vendors or individuals it is impossible to make this determination”.
Specific information regarding racoon dogs is provided by Xiao et al:
“Racoon dog fur farming is legal in China; however, due to a drop in fur prices, racoon dogs are now frequently sold off in live animal markets, augmented by wild-caught animals.” (3rd paragraph of the Discussion section).
Xiao et al. state that no pangolins or bats were found in the Wuhan markets.
Memorably, Xiao X. (X.X.) et al. explained how these data were acquired:
“Serendipitously, prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, over the period May 2017-November 2019, we were conducting unrelated routine monthly surveys of all 17 wet market shops selling live wild animals for food and pets across Wuhan City (surveys were conducted by X.X.). This was intended to identify the source of the tick-borne (no human -to-human transmission) Severe Fever with Thrombocytopenia (SFTS), following an outbreak in Hubei province in 2009-2010 . . . these shops selling live, often wild, animals included two at Baishazhou market . . . seven at Huanan seafood market . . . four at Dijiao outdoor pet market . . .and four at Qiyimen live animal market . . .”. (1st paragraph of Materials and Methods section).
“As an objective observer unconnected to law enforcement X.X. was granted unique and complete access to trading practices. On each visit, vendors were asked what species they had sold over the preceding month and in what numbers, along with the prices…and origin of these goods (wild caught or captive bred/farmed). Additionally . . . the number of individuals available for sale at the time of each visit was noted, and animals were checked for gunshot wounds . . .” (2nd paragraph of Materials and Methods section).
Even more people than the five co-authors (from China, Canada, and UK), and the multiple market vendors, were well aware of this study and its findings of live mammalian species in Wuhan wet markets, including the Huanan seafood market because:
“All protocols in the market survey were reviewed and approved by the Ethics Committee of Hubei University of Chinese Medicine (no 20161111). All vendors provided written informed consent to participate in these surveys, and all protocols were performed with relevant guidelines and regulations”. (4th paragraph of the Materials and Methods).
Two of the many key questions raised by this June 2021 publication are:
- Will the WHO Director General, Dr. Tedros, determine from China why the WHO international team in Wuhan Jan-Feb 2021 was not informed of these important data, especially with regard to the live masked palm civets, racoon dogs, and mink being sold in Wuhan wet markets May 2017 until November 2019 “immediately prior to the COVID-19 pandemic”?
- Will Dr. Tedros determine from China what became of these 18 live mammalian species in Wuhan wet markets in December 2019-January 2020 and what were the results of (so far undisclosed) testing of these animals for SARS-CoV-2, especially the masked palm civets, the raccoon dogs, and the mink?
Daniel Lucey, M.D. MPH, FIDSA, FACP, is a Clinical Professor of Medicine at Dartmouth Geisel School of Medicine, Infectious Disease adjunct Professor at Georgetown Medical Center, senior scholar at Georgetown Law, Anthropology Research Associate at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and a member of the Infectious Diseases Society of America Global Health Committee. He served as a volunteer to outbreaks overseas including hands-on Ebola patient care in Sierra Leone and Liberia (Doctors without Borders) 2014, MERS 2013, SARS 2003, as well as HIV, H5N1, Zika, yellow Fever, and pneumonic plague 2017 (with WHO/USAID/CDC). Since Jan. 6, 2020 he has contributed more than 100 posts to Science Speaks on COVID-19 and traveled to China in February 2020. He initially proposed, then fundraised and helped design the content for 2018-2022 Smithsonian Exhibition on Epidemics due to zoonotic viruses. From 1982-1988 he trained at University of California San Francisco and Harvard and was an attending physician at the NIH (NIAID) in the 1990s while in the U.S. Public Health Service.