Residents wearing face masks pay for groceries by standing on chairs to peer over barriers set up to ring fence a wet market on…
Residents wearing face masks pay for groceries by standing on chairs to peer over barriers set up to ring fence a wet market on a street in Wuhan, Hubei province, the epicenter of China's coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, April 1, 2020.

A World Health Organization food and animal disease expert said Friday that he believes a market in the Chinese city of Wuhan selling live animals likely played a significant role in the emergence of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, but more research is needed to determine precisely how. 

Chinese authorities shut down the market in January as part of efforts to halt the spread of the virus and ordered a temporary ban on trade and consumption of wildlife. 

Speaking to reporters in Geneva, WHO's Peter Ben Embarek suggested such markets often were critical to providing food and livelihoods for millions of people globally and that authorities should focus on improving them rather than outlawing them.  

He said it was not clear whether live animals or infected vendors or shoppers may have brought the virus into the market. 

He suggested reducing the risk of disease transmission from animals to humans in these often-overcrowded markets could be addressed in many cases by improving hygiene and food safety standards, including separating live animals from humans. 

Ben Embarek said extensive studies at the scene would be needed to determine the original animal source of COVID-19. China has not yet invited WHO or other external experts to be part of their investigation. 

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said there is "enormous evidence" that the virus originated in a lab in Wuhan, though he has not disclosed details. Numerous scientists have said the virus appears to have originated in nature. 

Special Section