Coronavirus Outbreak Sees China Ban Trade and Consumption of Wild Animals

China has banned people from selling, buying and eating wild animals amid the outbreak of the deadly coronavirus COVID-19, which has been linked to a wholesale food market in the central city of Wuhan, Hubei province.

The country's highest decision-making body, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, backed a proposal Monday "prohibiting the illegal wildlife trade, abolishing the bad habit of overconsumption of wildlife, and effectively protecting the lives and health of the people," the AFP news agency reported, citing state media. The ban took immediate effect.

The committee made the decision in lieu of a final law being passed, after it was announced Monday that the annual parliamentary meeting of the National People's Congress would be postponed due to COVID-19.

According to AFP, the state-run China Central Television reported that the outbreak had brought to light "the prominent problem of excessive consumption of wild animals, and the huge hidden dangers to public health and safety."

Bloomberg reported, citing the state-run People's Daily newspaper, that the ban will relate to terrestrial wild animals which the country protects due to their ecological, scientific, and social importance; those bred in captivity; and creatures protected by the existing legislation including the Wildlife Protection Law.

In China, wild animals are used for food, traditional medicines, and fur. As such, Li Shuo, a senior global policy adviser at the environmental organization Greenpeace in Beijing, told Bloomberg that stopping people from trading and consuming such products would be "challenging," partly due to the complexities in defining what constitutes wildlife, and deciding whether Chinese medicines should be affected.

COVID-19 first came to the attention of health officials late last year, and has so far predominantly affected mainland China, killing over 2,000 people in more than 77,000 cases. Many of the first people to fall ill in December 2019 were exposed to wildlife at the Huanan seafood wholesale market, where animals including poultry, snakes, and bats were sold. As shown in the map by Statista below, it has since spread to over two dozen countries and territories, including the U.S., Japan, Iran, and Egypt.

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A map showing confirmed cases of COVID-19 since Monday, February 24. Statista

It is still unclear where the virus originated, but experts believe it may have passed from animals to humans at Huanan market, before spreading between people. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 75 percent of new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals, including the deadly SARS and MERS viruses which are also members of the large coronavirus family of pathogens.

The move comes after China temporarily banned the wildlife trade in January until the nationwide epidemic was brought under control. Earlier this month the authorities seized the bodies of hundreds of frozen animals including raccoons and leopard cats from a refrigerator facility in the southeastern city of Pingguo. Officials believe the goods were sold on the popular Chinese social media platform WeChat.

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A Chinese man wears a protective mask as he rides his bike on February 23, 2020 in Beijing, China. Kevin Frayer/Getty