'Wet markets' likely launched the coronavirus. Here's what you need to know.

Most of the earliest COVID-19 cases trace back to one of these sites, but what are they and what do they sell?

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Wet markets, like this one in Macau, are found throughout Asia and sell fresh vegetables, fruit, seafood, and meat. Although most wet markets don’t sell wildlife, the terms “wet market” and “wildlife market” are often conflated.

Until earlier this year, most people had never heard of the term “wet market,” but the coronavirus pandemic has thrust it into the limelight. A wet market in Wuhan, China, called the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, is believed to be the source of COVID-19.

Somewhat akin to farmer’s markets and found around the world, wet markets are typically large collections of open-air stalls selling fresh seafood, meat, fruits, and vegetables. Some wet markets sell and slaughter live animals on site, including chickens, fish, and shellfish. In China, they’re a staple of daily life for many.

More rarely, wet markets also sell wild animals and their meat. The Huanan market, for example, had a wild animal section where live and slaughtered species were for sale: snakes, beavers, porcupines, and baby crocodiles, among other animals.

Why “wet” markets? One explanation has to do with the liquid in these places: live fish splashing in tubs of water, melting ice keeping meat cold, the blood and innards of slaughtered animals. Another is simply that they deal in perishable goods (thus wet) instead of dry,...

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