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CHINESE experts identified a Wuhan wet market as the potential origin of a pandemic at least five years before Covid emerged, a British scientist has revealed.
Dr Eddie Holmes said he visited the Huanan seafood market in 2014 with local health officials who highlighted it as the sort of place where a virus could “spill over” from animals to humans.
The market – where traders sold live mammals, reptiles and fish – became notorious after it was linked to initial outbreak of coronavirus in late 2019.
Dr Holmes, an evolutionary biologist and virologist who now works at the University of Sydney, said he was taken there five years earlier by members of the Wuhan Centre for Disease Control.
He told the Daily Telegraph his visit was part of a wider project to hunt for new pathogens with the potential to spark a pandemic.
“Well, here’s the place – that’s why I went.
“I’ve been to a few of these markets, but this was a big one – it felt like a disease incubator, exactly the sort of place you would expect a disease to emerge.”
Dr Holmes said he remembered the market as a sprawling network of narrow covered streets in the heart of Wuhan.
There were “crates of wildlife stacked on top of each other” including fish, snakes, rodents and raccoon dogs – a fox-like animal known to be a carrier of Covid-19.
While he was there he saw one trader clubbing a raccoon dog to death.
Dr Holmes said he was not sure if the Wuhan CDC had beefed up surveillance or introduced new safety measures in the years after his visit.
The Huanan market has been sealed off since January 1 last year, a day after Chinese authorities first revealed cases of a “mystery pneumonia” in the city.
Of 41 people initially in hospital with the new disease, two thirds worked or shopped at the market.
Experts said it was likely the bat-borne virus spread to humans via another animal species that was sold and slaughtered at the market.
The outbreak sparked calls for wet markets to close worldwide.
China shut similar markets in Beijing and elsewhere – but the sale of live animals resumed just weeks later.
Last week the World Health Organization finally recommended a halt to the sale of live wild mammals in food markets to prevent future pandemics.
It is a dramatic U-turn from the WHO’s original decision to back the re-opening of the controversial wet markets last May.
A dual WHO-Chinese study published last month suggested markets selling both live and dead animals were a likely source of disease.
“Animals, particularly wild animals, are the source of more than 70 per cent of all emerging infectious diseases in humans, many of which are caused by novel viruses,” the WHO said in a statement.
“Wild mammals, in particular, pose a risk for the emergence of new diseases.”
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