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Scientists believe coronavirus originated in wild animal markets — and they want the Chinese government to shut them down

Coronavirus potentially linked to market
Coronavirus potentially linked to market 06:57

Experts say meat sold at wild animal markets in Wuhan is likely the culprit for the outbreak of the deadly coronavirus, which has so far killed more than 630 people and infected more than 31,000 globally. Similar viruses will continue to pop up regularly unless the root of the problem is addressed, scientists say. 

"I want the wild animal markets closed," infectious disease expert Dr. Ian Lipkin told CBS News on Wednesday. 

Lipkin is an epidemiologist from Columbia University, currently advising authorities in China. He said the coronavirus epidemic is "very close" to becoming a pandemic. 

The new strain of coronavirus is believed to have originated in wild animals, possibly bats, before jumping to the human population. Lipkin said similar viruses will continue to pop up "every couple of years" if the problem of wet markets falls by the wayside. 

Last week, China temporarily banned the trade of wild animals until the virus has been eliminated, The Associated Press reports. Experts say diseases can easily mutate and spread to humans interacting with these markets, where various species of both wild and domesticated animals are kept alive in close proximity — but authorities have failed to fully address these health risks over the years.  

China's Wuhan Coronavirus Spreads To Macau
Residents wearing face masks purchase seafood at a wet market on January 28, 2020 in Macau, China. Last week, China temporarily banned the trade of wild animals until the virus has been eliminated.  Anthony Kwan / Getty Images

"While closing wildlife markets could have a major impact, bans alone will not stop the illegal wildlife trade if demand persists," The World Wildlife Fund said in a statement. "This health crisis must serve as a wake-up call for the need to end unsustainable use of endangered animals and their parts, as exotic pets, for food consumption and for their perceived medicinal value."

Lipkin worked with Chinese officials during the SARS epidemic in 2003, which spread from animal markets, and consulted on the movie "Contagion," which depicts the rapid spread of a deadly disease following the accidental cross-contamination of bat and pig viruses. He pinpointed wild animals as a common thread connecting viral epidemics for decades

"You're talking about HIV, Nipah [virus], Marburg virus, Ebola virus, influenzas, these are all what we call zoonosis — these are infectious agents that originated in wild animals and moved into people," he said. "If you take wild animals and you put them into a market with domestic animals or other animals, where there's an opportunity for a virus to jump species, to adapt from a bat to a small mammal-like a rodent or a ferret, and then jump into humans, you are creating a highway — a superhighway for viruses to go from the wild into people. We can't do this anymore. We can't tolerate this anymore."

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But Lipkin said Chinese officials are taking a different approach than they did in 2003, when the world wasn't quite as interconnected. He praised the government's "deep commitment" to containing the virus, not only in China, but globally. 

Lipkin said he personally asked "Chinese leaders to show leadership internationally" by shutting down the wet markets, which exist throughout Asia, West Africa, South and Central America and possibly even covertly in parts of the United States.  

"We have to shut these wild animal markets," Lipkin stressed. "If we don't do that, we will see one of these emerging infectious diseases every couple of years."

Lipkin acknowledged that shutting down wild animal markets is a difficult decision that will end "thousands of years of tradition." However, he said it is necessary to end the spread of viral diseases like SARS, MERS and coronavirus. 

Last week, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) called on China and other governments to close live animal markets that participate in the trade of wild animals. It emphasized the importance of combating the illegal trafficking of wild animals and changing risky wildlife consumption behaviors. 

"If these persist, and human consumption of wildlife goes on, then we will continue to face heightened risks from emerging new viruses, potentially more lethal," WCS said. "It is hard to design more perfect conditions for new viruses to emerge than market systems such as that in Wuhan." 

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