Interview with ABC Southern Queensland Drive

23 April 2020

SHERIDAN STEWART: Now, whilst restrictions to our lives remain in place, attention is beginning to turn to a time when life just might return to normal, when restrictions lift, which is also where the virus is believed to have started. And I’m talking about the wet markets of the Chinese city of Wuhan. So people are starting to wonder about that. In fact, wet markets has become something of a buzz word. So we’re keen to know what that's about. Federal Member for Maranoa and Agricultural Minister, David Littleproud has called for support to have the international experts examine the wildlife wet markets in China, given the disruption and death toll that the coronavirus has caused. Minister Littleproud joins us this afternoon. Thanks for being here.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me Sheridan.

SHERIDAN STEWART: So I guess it's important to be clear on what you’re calling for scrutiny over, because there is a difference between a wildlife wetland and wet markets. So can you just talk us through those differences?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah definitely. It's very important people appreciate this; there is a big difference when a wildlife wet market and a wet market itself. A wet market, a good example is probably the Sydney Fish Markets or anywhere- a farmer's market where there's fresh produce. But what a wildlife wet market, adds another dimension to that, that brings in exotic animals, wild animals, into a marketplace that then mixes invariably in some of these countries with domestic animals and then humans. And that brings together a mixture and cocktail where it opens itself and makes it more susceptible to pandemics that we've seen with COVID-19. Now we're not pointing the finger at anybody, we're simply saying: these markets are important around the world. They've evolved into a level that we should scientifically investigate it. Biology has evolved and as more and more of these animals come together and in contact with humans, we need to understand the human risk and the biosecurity risk. Because it's not just China, these markets, these wildlife markets happen in a lot of developed and developing nations I should say, developing nations. And it's important that we understand that because it's not just a risk to human health but also their food security because it can undermine their own cultural production systems.

So I called the G20 AG ministers in the early hours of Wednesday morning and asked them to be part of this and to call on the World Organisation for Animal Health to be a body to do this investigation, to base it using the best experts in the world to scientifically give us an understanding of the risks, whether there’s [indistinct] and if they’ve risen. How do we have that mature conversation with those nations about a transition that doesn't undermine their food security? Particularly the developing nations, but it's become important to.
So we need to do that and there’s good global citizens, the world has got a lot of support, we’re intrinsically tied to one another. And that's why it's important that we work as a global community on this and make sure we get the answers, not just for ourselves and keeping ourselves safe, and our agricultural production systems safe but those developing nations as well.

SHERIDAN STEWART: So what type of experts would you like to see looking into this?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well look the World Organisation for Animal Health have always been the best place, it has, it draws on scientists and veterinarians from around the world and proudly an Australian is the President of that. And my Chief Veterinarian Officer is the chair of that body and he will place to call upon other eminent scientists from around the world, to look at that, to get into these wildlife wet markets, be able to do the studies to understand the risks. And to be able to then give those developing nations the tools to understand what they need to do to mitigate them. Or if we need to phase them out then what does that look like in terms of a conversation and working with the sovereignty of those nations in a calm and methodical way. And that's what we've, well I took to the G20 Agricultural Ministers’ Meeting to try and garner support and I've written to the World Organisation for Animal Health to lead that. And in fact, China has in fact been a signatory to that for some 10 years and worked pro-actively with us on that so we're hoping that they'll actually come with us on this. And it's not necessary just looking at the Wuhan markets, it’s looking at those markets around the world because there will be different groups in different nations that we need to work through. But I think this is a mature step around understanding how the world has evolved and we've come a lot closer and we need to now act as a global community to protect ourselves and our food security.

SHERIDAN STEWART: And you're not seeing any evidence that China is already pursuing this line? You'd imagine that they would given that you know, that the virus, to the best of our knowledge, started in Wuhan?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, and look we’ve got to acknowledge that the Chinese officials actually did notify the World Organisation for Animal Health that that's where they believe COVID-19 originated from. So they took the steps to identify it and then notify officials of that, so that needs to be clearly acknowledged. So what we're saying is, and I believe as the Agriculture Minister, being responsible for agriculture and food security in this country, is that we need to think globally about this because as we've seen it has inherent risks to us as the world's got smaller. We need to make sure we also think about those developing nations where food security is a lot bigger issue than what it is here in Australia. We've got a global responsibility to do that and make sure we help those developing nations as best we can. And I think this is a good way to do it by giving the best and brightest, one of which comes from Australia to help in that study and to make sure that we can then have that conversation and predicated on science not emotion.

SHERIDAN STEWART: And are you getting support from your peers in other countries? This is you putting your hand up, Australia is making these calls. Do you think there is enough pressure from other countries to see these kind of investigations in China?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, look I think you’ve got to appreciate that all the nations around the world are at different stages of this pandemic and obviously in Australia we are a lot further ahead because, not because of just what governments, state and federal, have done but also what the Australian people have done. They've knuckled down and listened to the medical experts and we are actually seeing that curve flatten and hopefully go down to zero. So we're a lot further ahead but we shouldn't be apologetic for being the first in the world to raise this. I think it's important that someone raises it and starts the conversation in a mature way that then allows us to start that mechanism. And it means that because we do have the President of the World Organisation for Animal Health, we can actually lead it from here, we've got the capacity to do that and start that mechanism to undertake the work that needs to be done and to work with the sovereignty of each of those individual nations that have these wildlife wet markets.

SHERIDAN STEWART: Minister Littleproud, good to have you on the program again. Thanks for your time.
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me.

SHERIDAN STEWART: Cheers. David Littleproud, Minister for Agriculture, Drought, Emergency Management and also of course the Deputy Leader of the National Party.