Can New York’s live animal markets spread coronavirus locally?

Coronavirus
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NEW YORK — Where did COVID-19 come from?

There are some theories it was developed in a Chinese virus lab in Wuhan and accidentally leaked out, though those theories have generally been debunked by the U.S. Intelligence Community. For the most part, scientists believe COVID-19 came out of a so-called “wet” market in Wuhan.

A wet or “live” market is a place where vendors bring live animals, and customers pick the ones they want to eat. The animals are slaughtered on the spot and the meat is given to the customers.

It’s widely believed the virus came from bats that were sold at a Wuhan market, crossed over to a human and was then spread person-to-person.

New York City has its own wet markets — 71 of them overseen by the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.

No bats — but plenty of goats, sheep and chickens, as well as other birds.

Dr. Neal Barnard, the head of the 12,000 member Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, said those markets are a big problem.

“If anything, the situation is more dangerous than it has ever been,” he told PIX11. “What makes this especially dangerous now is that you have customers coming into these places and workers coming in who may be harboring the coronavirus themselves.”

The fear is that COVID-19 could combine with a virus the animal may have, creating yet another new peril.

“Where the genes can mix, you’ll get a novel virus,” Barnard said.

“We cannot allow that to happen right in the middle of a huge metropolitan area. It is a time bomb you just cannot allow to be set.”

ACTION IN NY STATE LEGISLATURE

Two state legislators from New York City believe live markets are an existential threat. Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal and State Sen. Luis Sepulveda have teamed up for new legislation they say they hope will close the markets.

“These markets are poorly regulated and pose serious health risks to workers, nearby residents, and all New Yorkers as potential sites for a new virus outbreak,” Sepulveda said in a news release.

Rosenthal states her position in the same release. “Closing New York’s live animal markets, which operate in residential neighborhoods and do not adhere to even the most basic sanitary standards, until we determine whether they can be made safe, is a vital first step.”

The proposed legislation would call on authorities in epidemiology, veterinary science, and animal welfare to form a task force. They would try see if there is some regulation that can make live market slaughtering safe.

ALL LIVE MARKETS ARE NOT THE SAME

But Imran Uddin, who owns Madani Halal, a live animal market in Ozone Park, Queens, is proud of his shop.

“We take sanitizing and cleanup very seriously,” he told PIX11. “Sanitizing, morning, noon, before we close. It’s something that’s always taking place.”

Uddin formerly worked in advertising. His journey to take over his father’s live market is the subject of a 2008 documentary that aired on PBS called “A Son’s Sacrifice.”

Uddin said he only buys the animals he needs for a given day, so they’re not jammed together. He knows where they come from and they’re disease free, he said. He’s proud of the way he runs things: according to Islamic law on the care and slaughtering of animals. And it’s something his customers want to see for themselves.

“They want to see the actual process being done, making sure it’s done properly. There is no room for error.”

He pointed out that a lot of people from the Mideast, Asia and Africa are used to live markets.

“There’s such a great diversity of people in New York City,” Uddin pointed out. “Seventy percent, maybe even higher than that, are non-halal consumers. People who just want to see the animal, choose the animal.”

But animal activists said that doesn’t make sense in New York anymore.

“People who shop in live animal markets can get the same meat in a grocery store,” argued Donny Moss, a dedicated animal rights activist who runs a web site called “Theirturn.net.”

Uddin countered, saying that packaged meat just isn’t the same as his.

“I work with a lot of New York City’s finest restaurants. All of the chefs, they’ll tell you, you can’t ever compare boxed meat to fresh meat.”

Uddin said he believes the city and state do a good job overseeing and inspecting his place. But he concedes other live markets may be different.

“There’s always someone doing something cheap,” he said.

MARKET PROTESTS

Donny Moss has documented protests against some of these other live markets. His tweets and videos on theirturn.net show things like chickens stacked up in outdoor crates in the rain while a store is closed.

“These wet markets are breeding grounds for infectious disease. You have feces, urine, feathers and body parts contaminating these markets.”

Moss said customers and workers can then track those things into the street, other stores and the subway.

Moss was vocal about what activists often consider the most controversial wet markets: the outdoor rooster and chicken markets that Hasidic Jews set up before Yom Kippur in sections of Brooklyn.

Moss said it’s, “the only market where people actually handle the animals before they’re turned over to slaughter.”

The Hasidim use tens of thousands of birds in a ritual called “kaporos.” The chickens are waved overhead, symbolically taking on a person’s sins. Then they are immediately slaughtered and donated to the poor.

At least that’s the what’s supposed to happen. But Moss and other activists, including the secretive guy who runs unparalleledsuffering.com, have posted videos of the aftermath.

One shows chicken blood literally running in the streets, and thousands of bird carcasses tossed in trash bags and disposed of in garbage trucks. A documentary shows a woman rescuing a live chicken that had been tossed in a bag and nursing it back to health.

Moss, the activist, believes the city should have acted to stop the chicken killing long ago.

“My gut feeling is that the reason the city is saying ‘nothing to see here with these wet markets is because they know if they ban the slaughter of animals within the five boroughs, they’d have to shut down kaporos, too. And that voting bloc…is so powerful.”

New York’s top court has upheld dismissal of lawsuits seeking to get the city health department to enforce its laws against kaporos. Essentially, the rulings sustain the city’s right to choose when to enforce its laws. But what about all the live markets operating while COVID-19 ravages New York?

CITY & STATE RESPONSE

We asked the city health department for its position on these live markets now. Spokesmen avoided the issue, saying it’s a matter for state regulation.

So, we contacted the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets. Here’s their response:

The Department of Agriculture and Markets has jurisdiction over live poultry markets, which are domestic animal markets. As a part of the food supply, these markets are not restricted from operating. These establishments are inspected by the Department for sanitation, food safety and additional regulations. All businesses exempted as essential, including these markets, should be taking additional measures to achieve social distancing in their establishments and follow the NYS DOH’s guidance on hand washing/hygiene, social distancing and face covering. It is important to note that the CDC and the USDA have stated that there is no evidence that domestic animals spread COVID-19 to humans. The greatest risk of transmission remains human to human contact.

That’s true. In Wuhan, animal to human transmission supposedly came from bats or perhaps little scaly mammals called pangolin.

But Dr. Barnard of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine said the danger is still there. He cites a 2015 document from the Centers for Disease Control

“After they discovered in live animal markets in Minnesota that there was animal to animal and animal to human transmission, they wrote “if efficiently transmitted among humans, these novel viruses might have pandemic potential,'” he said.

“This was written five years ago, and it predicted exactly what happened with COVID-19,” Barnard said. “We can’t allow these places to operate where new pathogenic strains can develop.”

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