Wild Meat: The Notorious Culprit of Wuhan Coronavirus Outbreak

The Wuhan seafood market where the virus reportedly originated has been shut down, but the panic that derives from wild meat consumption is spreading. According to academician Zhong Nanshan, one of the experts fighting on the frontline, the source of the virus is likely to be wild animals, with the specific species unclear.

Bat: the notorious culprit of the coronavirus outbreak

Several recent studies suggest that the source of the coronavirus is bats. Genetic testing showed that the new type of coronavirus has a 96% consistency with the whole genomic sequences of the Chinese rufous horseshoe bat (Bat CoV RaTG13) found in Yunnan province, and is around a 90% match with the genomic sequences of the Chinese rufous horseshoe bat (bat-SL-CoVZC45 and bat-SL-CoVZXC21) that lives in Zhejiang province.

However it is still unclear whether the rufous bat transmitted virus to humans directly or via another carrier animal traded in the Wuhan seafood market. In fact, it is not the first time that a disease has been associated with eating wild meat. As seen in a documentary released for the 10 year anniversary of the 2003 SARS outbreak, the second patient infected with SARS was a chef dealing with wild meat in a restaurant in Heyuan county in Guangdong. According to later studies, the SARS virus found in the civet cat had 99% genetic homology with the human SARS virus.

The spread of the disease, and the wet market known as the epicenter stems from a tradition of eating wild meat in some parts of China. Ever since the outbreak of the coronavirus, pictures of bat soup were circulated on social media, bringing along with it a chiroptophobia (fear of bats). Viewers were shocked by how such an exotic animal could be cooked into a nutritious and luxurious meal. A 2016 video of a pretty female travel host eating fruit bat in the Republic of Palau also went viral. Netizens comment under her Weibo post that what she did back then was gross. One Weibo user commented, “What’s gross is not the bat itself but the person who made it into food and eat it.” She then argued that it was a common local meal and that the bat was domestically raised, not wild.

History of wild meat consumption in China

In fact, there’s a long culinary history involving wild meat in China and other Asian countries. For a long period of time in Chinese history, wild game was seen as rare delicacies. In primitive times, before humans began animal husbandry, wild animals were a main source of nutrition. During the Zhou dynasty when humans learned how to cook, people’s favorite wild animals to dine on included elk, deer, bear, wild boar, rabbit, badger, goose, quail, etc.

Professor Zhou Daming, dean of anthropology at Sun Yat-Sen University said. “Actually, let’s assume the history of human development has 3 million years, it is almost certain there are 2.99 million years that people were eating game. The domestication of animals only lasted for some 10,000 years.”

As written in “Dream of the Red Chamber” (Qing dynasty), one of the four most influential literary works in Chinese history, wild meat was the embodiment of elegance and extravagance. Delicacies like civet cat preserved in salt, were always reserved for the most noble descendants in the feudal family.

In the 1980s, local markets in Guangdong, apart from the normal groceries and produce, featured turtles sold in large wash basins and monkeys in cages. In the 1995 Hong Kong movie The Chinese Feast, a culinary competition ends with a forbidden dish — monkey brains. The old-fashioned way is to tie living monkeys under the table, crush their skull allowing diners to eat monkey brains raw with hot oil poured on it. However in the movie, it turned out that the chef used tofu, instead of real monkey brains to fool the judges. The scene gives more credibility to the saying “The Chinese would practically eat everything.”

scene of eating raw “monkey brains” from the film The Chinese Feast (source: bilibili)

Why people should stop eating games?

Ever since the coronavirus outbreak, several provinces have issued relevant regulations on preventing wild meat consumption. On January 21, the Guangdong Provincial Bureau of Market Supervision and Administration and the Guangdong Consumer Committee jointly issued the “Notice on 2020 Spring Festival Consumption”, noting that consuming wild animals is officially banned to avoid contact with bacteria of unknown origin.

From the point of view of modern nutrition, there is no obvious benefit from eating wild animals instead of domestic animals, and they are almost the same in terms of protein, carbohydrates, minerals and vitamins.

According to an article by the Southern Daily back in 2004 after the SARS crisis, Wu Ziqiang, a pharmacist at the Guangdong Provincial Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine, pointed out that there are absolutely no scientific grounds advocating wild meat as more nutritious than regular meat (chicken, duck and beef). “In fact eating game is a bad habit, which mainly caters to a psychological need.” In a word, curiosity killed the cat. It’s time to drop the gluttonous desire and show more respect to the law of nature.