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A Sydney-based virologist says he was taken to the Wuhan wet market initially at the centre of the Covid-19 outbreak seven years ago and warned of its potential for a virus spillover.
University of Sydney's Dr Eddie Holmes, who was voted NSW Scientist of the Year in 2020, visited Wuhan in 2014 and was taken to the Huanan Seafood Market as part of a project delving into potential pathogens that could emerge in China.
“The Wuhan Centre for Disease Control took us there, and here’s the key bit, because the discussion was: ‘where could a disease emerge?’ Well, here’s the place... that’s why I went,” he told The Telegraph.
Dr Holmes was taken aback by the sheer size of the market, which he said felt like a "disease incubator" with an array of live wild animals for sale, many in cages.
The market was shut down on January 1, 2020 after the many of the first-identified cases of Covid-19 were linked to the market.
Yet China has faced continued criticism from the West over its handling of the outbreak, facing allegations it attempted to downplay and cover up the severity of the virus in its infancy.
Several academics have voiced their concerns over the access a group of experts were granted during a World Health Organisation-led mission on the origins of the virus, with claims vital raw data surrounding original cases was withheld.
Dr Holmes says with the politicisation of the investigation he fears such data which could determine the role of the market in the outbreak may never be accessed.
The joint report from WHO and Chinese experts last month said it was likely the the virus was originally transmitted from bats to humans through another animal however, it was unclear if that occurred at the market or at an earlier stage before a super spreader event there.
Dr Dale Fisher, an expert in infectious diseases and chair of the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network, told The Telegraph the jump to humans could have happened elsewhere, like at a farm, for example and could have then been taken to the market by a farmer who infected others.
WHO warns nations to stop the sale of live mammals at markets
Last week in the wake of the Wuhan mission, international agencies including the WHO urged countries to suspend the sale of live wild mammals in food markets, warning they may be the source of more than 70 per cent of emerging infectious diseases in humans.
China last year banned trade in wildlife for human consumption but legal loopholes allow some disease-prone species to be farmed, according to regional experts.
The new guidance said "significant problems" can arise when these markets allow the sale and slaughter of live animals.
"When wild animals are kept in cages or pens, slaughtered and dressed in open market areas, these areas become contaminated with body fluids, faeces and other waste, increasing the risk of transmission of pathogens to workers and customers and potentially resulting in spillover of pathogens to other animals in the market," it said.
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