FoA: Senate should pass wildlife provision in Heroes Act to stem pandemics

Buried in the stalled Heroes Act aimed at alleviating hardship caused by the Coronavirus that was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in May is a key provision that Friends of Animals has been advocating for regarding the closure of global wild animal meat markets to help prevent future pandemics. The provision is in the Wildlife-Borne Disease section of the act — HR 6800 – and calls on the Secretaries of Commerce, Interior and Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in consultation with the Secretary of State to “provide assistance to foreign countries to end the trade of wildlife that pose a risk to humans because of transmission of pathogens that cause disease.”

Friends of Animals has been calling on U.S. and world leaders to shutter wild animal meat markets also known as “wet markets” where captured wild animals are killed and sold for consumption. The markets have been linked to the emergence of zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19 that has sickened 22 million people worldwide and killed more than 700,000, including 170,000 U.S. residents. Health experts have traced the Coronavirus to live wild bats captured and sold for slaughter that transmitted it to humans possibly via pangolins or other live animals also sold in a wild animal meat market in Wuhan, China. 

Covid-19 is not the only deadly disease to emerge from these markets. SARS, MERS, Ebola, Nipah virus and many others have been determined to have been communicated from wild animals to humans in similar commerce. Almost 60-75 percent of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic in nature, meaning they jump from animals to humans.

“The wet markets of the world have for too long cruelly consumed millions of wild animals,” Friends of Animals President Priscilla Feral said. “This provision is an important first step to shutting down a wildlife trade that endangers the health of the entire planet. But the suffering of wildlife and dangers of extinction caused by the trade along with the deadly risks to humans will not fully be eradicated until strong sanctions are enacted on countries that allow markets to remain open.”

The Heroes Act provision regarding wildlife trade would also require:

· identification of wildlife species that pose a biohazard risk to human health and publication of a list

· development of a framework for wildlife disease experts in the U.S. to conduct at risk assessment of wildlife diseases and communicate them to the public

· funding for academic, governmental and nongovernmental efforts to prevent wildlife disease outbreaks

· the establishment of monitoring systems in countries that pose a high risk for animal-to-human transmission of disease.

· criminal penalties for anyone who knowingly imports, ships or transports any species deemed a biohazard to humans

The provision allocates $21 million for these efforts.

In a letter to U.S. Senators, FoA said it applauds the positive intent of the provision. But also called on lawmakers to strengthen it.

“It is our opinion that the provisions of this legislation do not go far enough. In particular, the Act would provide resources and support for countries working to close their wild animal meat markets. But the legislation does not explicitly state that there is global need for a closure of all such markets,” said Feral in the August letter. “The United States has demonstrated firm resolve in insisting that countries that harbor other unacceptable businesses – for example, illicit drug manufacturing facilities, illegal intellectual property copying factories, child pornography publishing houses, and similar businesses – be shut down promptly and permanently. Now, in the face of the most devastating pandemic in a century, with fatalities now claiming more than 176,000 American lives, there is compelling need to demonstrate similar resolve in insisting that countries that have been tolerating the continued operation of wild animal meat markets within their jurisdictions abandon this reckless and dangerous policy, or face substantive sanctions. Friends of Animals encourages you to proceed with these important reforms and, in doing so, help protect the entire planet from future epidemics and pandemics.

Earlier this year, FoA wrote to members of Congress as well as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging officials to call for the closure of all worldwide wet markets, including those in the U.S. as well as legal and illegal markets across the globe.

“We earnestly encourage the United States to assume a leadership function at the United Nations by insisting on a closure of all wild animal wet markets worldwide, followed up by credible monitoring and serious consequences for countries that fail to comply, Feral and FoA Wildlife Law Program Legal Director Michael Harris wrote in the April 24 letter to the Department of State’s Office of Global Public Affairs liaison.

A newly published report by the Law Library of Congress prepared for Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal’s office after an FoA request confirmed the lax regulation, oversight and enforcement of the wildlife trade. The report entitled “Regulation of Wild Animal Wet Markets in Selected Jurisdictions” found that “in some jurisdictions, it appears that the types of wild animals or their derivative products sold for consumption are largely protected species, and therefore their trade is illegal. This includes Egypt, India, Liberia, and Pakistan.”

FoA has also written U.N. leaders and member countries and has offered to partner with world leaders to pursue a global educational program to raise awareness that the consumption of wild animal meat carries high risk, not only for the consumer, but for all the world.

In June the German Ambassador to the UN Dr. Christoph Heusgen announced support for strong action saying that his country is seeking a global shut-down of all wildlife meat markets. Read more about FoA’s efforts here.