Unless a proposed ban is strictly enforced, it’s feared that practices dangerous to human health, which are still widespread, could be driven underground.
And a shift in policies in other countries that run similar markets will also be needed for disease risks to be significantly reduced.
So-called wet markets – where animals ranging from civet cats to turtles are crammed together in cages and may be slaughtered on demand for customers – are popular in countries such as Indonesia, as well as Vietnam and China.
Conservationists say it’s not just cruel, but creates breeding grounds for viruses to emerge because people come into close contact with animal body parts and fluids. Sars and Mers were traced back to the animal trade.
Some animals are bred for the markets, others are trapped in the wild, but almost all are sold for eating or for the “traditional” Asian medicine market.
Vietnam’s prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, has asked the country’s agriculture ministry to draw up a ban on the trade in and consumption of wildlife. Selling and eating species caught from the wild is – in theory – already illegal in the country, but it has long been a grey area, with the law poorly enforced.
The ban, due to take effect from 1 April, comes just weeks after China outlawed street markets such as the one in Wuhan, where huge numbers of animals are crammed together in cages and slaughtered in unhygienic conditions.
The multi-billion-dollar trade in Vietnam’s thousands of markets exploits animals such as endangered pangolins, bats and reptiles.
Conservationists pushing Vietnam to ban its wildlife trade wrote in an open letter to the country’s government: “The lesson from Sars and now Covid-19 are clear: new viruses will continue to move from wildlife to people while illegal wildlife trade and wildlife consumption continue.”
Experts warned a ban would need to be strictly enforced to have any effect.
Matt Morley, a wildlife crime expert at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw), told The Independent that in both China and Vietnam, the impact would be entirely dependent on the political will to enforce them.
“Many of these markets have operated illegally for years under the noses of law enforcers who are either complicit in the illegality or indifferent to it,” he said.
“There are no panaceas – viruses will continue to be transferred to humans from non-human sources. Anything that reduces the types of interactions that facilitate these transfers, such as closing wet markets or regulating the bush meat trade is welcome.
“Regulation is not the only solution, though. Frequently all it does is drive such activity underground. People buy, eat and keep wildlife for complex reasons that need to be unravelled.”
Calling for significant investment in public health education, Mr Morley added: “We should be aware of sensitivity around these issues and recognise that in addition to the criminal elements involved, a great many vulnerable people in rural and urban areas will lose their livelihoods.
“We’re talking about taking on some deeply ingrained practices. Bans and regulations alone won’t solve this problem but they’re a step in the right direction if enforced.”
After the first cases of Covid-19 were detected, scientists in China pinpointed the Wuhan market as the source of the infection that has gone on to kill thousands of people worldwide.
Ifaw said that Meituan Delivery, one of China’s largest food delivery and shopping apps, has removed more than 8,000 restaurants and businesses that trade in wildlife meat.
However, according to website Mongabay, conservationists say these countries have indicated they are looking into regulating the trade.