Interview with 5AA

30 April 2020

MATTHEW PANTELIS: Alright. You'd know one of the issues around at the moment with coronavirus is the origin of this disease or illness and how it spread out of allegedly a wet market in Wuhan in China. I saw earlier this week, I think it was Monday, the Agriculture Minister, federally, David Littleproud, had a hook-up with G20 agriculture ministers and didn't seem to get a lot of support for his call for an investigation into this and also closing these damn markets down.

Now, you would think China, instead of wasting oxygen on bullying Australia as to what we should and shouldn't say globally, would be on the front foot saying: you know what? This started here. We are shutting these down immediately. And that's all, they don't need legislation. It's a communist country, for goodness sake.

So why don't they? So let's ask the man himself that. David Littleproud, the Federal Agriculture Minister. Thanks for your time, Minister.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me. Great to be with you.

MATTHEW PANTELIS: So firstly, support for the proposal of closing these, not particularly widespread amongst your international colleagues.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah. Look, firstly, we have to acknowledge, we're asking for the closing down of wildlife wet markets.

MATTHEW PANTELIS: Yes.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: There's a differentiation between a wet market and a wildlife wet market.

MATTHEW PANTELIS: Indeed.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Wet markets are perfectly safe. In fact, you probably have one in Adelaide. You have a fish market there that operates; perfectly safe to go to farmers' markets where fresh vegetables are there. So they're perfectly safe. It's when wildlife is added and mixed with domestic animals and humans that you create a cocktail that science has proven over the last 30 years, six pandemics have come from.

So what we are saying: you are putting wildlife animals that are very stressed and then that exacerbates the virus within them to then mix with domestic animals and humans. It has been proven over the last 30 years or more that this is not a safe practice. And then we have to get better science in understanding these, these wildlife wet markets to make sure if we can't mitigate them, how do we phase that part of the market out.

There are very important wet markets around food security for a lot of nations. But this is about human health and about underpinning and securing agricultural production systems because it's not just humans that hurt through this, it's also animals and domestic animals that feed us and particularly in some of these nations and we're not just saying China; these wildlife wet markets are around the world.

In fact, if you, paper today or yesterday had one, reported on one in Indonesia.

MATTHEW PANTELIS: Yes.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: So there's learnings that we can take out of this. And we're saying let's get the World Organisation for Animal Health, which an Australian, our Chief Veterinary Officer is the President of, to lead experts from around the world to go and look at these in a calm methodical way with science and work with these nations about how we mitigate or phase these out and still secure food supply for these nations that rely on wet markets.

MATTHEW PANTELIS: Does it surprise you that China hasn't come out on the front foot yet saying, they're happy to say it originated in the Wuhan wildlife wet markets. So why haven't they gone in and shut it down?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well in fact, they did. They've shut down the wildlife part of that wet market. In fact, the Chinese officials originally identified this as the source; the World Health Organization, the World Organization for Animal Health. So they've lived up to international responsibility and identified that, whether they still believe it's there or not is part of conjecture. But that is another reason why we should go and investigate and understand.

There are five other pandemics that have happened since 1980 that demonstrate that when you add wildlife with domestic animals and humans, you create a cocktail that puts human life at risk.

And the world's got smaller. We've got to understand we're all part of a global community that's a lot smaller and we're intertwined and COVID-19 has proven that. People travel around the world a lot quicker and a lot more frequently. And there's over 170 nations that have been impacted by COVID-19.

So the responsible thing to do is to ask questions and to understand and to try and remove those risks for future generations. And I think those people, those over 200,000 people around the world know, 80 here in Australia lost their lives, deserve those answers. And that's why Australia is not afraid to be the first one to ask to do it.

So I don't think we should be ashamed that Australia's been the first one to lead the world. I think we should be damn proud of it and I'm proud of the fact that I have a Chief Veterinary Officer here in Australia that's prepared to do that. He's also engaged with all his chief veterinary officers from around the world asking them to be part of this. And I think that's a mature constructive way in which to get answers to protect people and to protect agricultural production systems.
MATTHEW PANTELIS: Now, I'm holding a letter you sent to the World Organisation for Animal Health just, I think, yesterday in regards to doing exactly this; in France they're located. The problem seems to be though getting the rest of the world onside.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah. Look, I had a hook-up with Mark Schipp, our Chief Veterinary Officer, yesterday and he was more confident that was a willingness to participate in this, in the studies to help a lot of these nations that have them, in Africa, in Asia and South America, to help them understand the risks that they are posing to their own national citizens but also to the global community. And I think he was more confident around this investigation getting up. And obviously, this is one the Department of Agriculture, myself and the department secretary and Mark Schipp decided to fight ourselves because we believed that after the Chinese officials identified this to the World Organisation for Animal Health, we had a responsibility to come out first and say: well let's investigate it.

Let's give those nations that have these wildlife wet markets the tools to understand what risk they are posing, not just to the visitors but to the world. And I think this is a responsible thing to do and Mark was a little bit more confident that there was some traction but we're waiting to see over the coming couple of days. And I know that the World Organization for Animal Health is keen to try and facilitate this as well.

MATTHEW PANTELIS: I appreciate your time this morning, David Littleproud. Thank you.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me. Anytime.

MATTHEW PANTELIS: The Federal Agriculture Minister there on the issue of the wildlife wet markets selling, well dead bats, along with cooked rats, charred dogs and other extreme meat you'd have to call it. And certainly, that is how it is described. But you know, how these things have operated for so long and you just wonder don't you; you've got to shake your head a little bit.