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By Will Gartshore, Director of Government Affairs and Advocacy, World Wildlife Fund (WWF)
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It’s an old aphorism that still rings painfully true today. Long before Covid-19, the three deadliest pandemics in human history—the bubonic plague, Spanish influenza and HIV/AIDS—claimed more lives than all the wars of the 20th century combined. And like Covid-19, all three of those diseases were zoonotic, meaning they originated in animals before jumping the species barrier to infect humans.
Every year, scientists identify three to four new or emerging infectious diseases, and in the last 60 years, roughly 75 percent of those diseases have been zoonotic. That said, there was nothing inevitable about the crisis we now face, and there’s nothing to say we can’t drastically reduce the risk, and the cost, of a future pandemic. Indeed, there are several steps the U.S. government can take—right now—to do exactly that. But first we need to understand what we’re up against.
The emergence of Covid-19 has put a spotlight on one of the leading drivers of emerging zoonotic diseases: the global trade in wildlife species known to carry transmissible diseases—and the markets that sell these high-risk species, both dead and alive. Recent diseases like severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and Covid-19 followed this trajectory, while human consumption of high-risk species—either purchased from a market or hunted for bushmeat—has contributed to outbreaks of diseases like Ebola and monkeypox.
Another major contributor to the uptick in zoonotic diseases is the rapid loss of natural habitats. When we clear or degrade forests and other wildlife habitats for food production, extractive industries or infrastructure development, we disrupt and create stress on natural systems and remove buffer areas between people and wildlife, thereby increasing the likelihood of humans and livestock being exposed to dangerous wildlife pathogens.
This is a challenge in desperate need of a concerted global response. But it’s going to take a groundswell of public support to affect the change we need. That’s why World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is calling upon all Americans to join us in urging the U.S. government to take immediate action. That means bolstering global health security and helping countries contain and manage the current outbreak, but it also means investing in programs and actions that will address the root causes of disease spillover.
The Administration should adopt a whole-of-government approach that includes a high-level interagency task force on pandemic prevention, comprised of HHS, USAID, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA and other agencies with expertise in public health, wildlife trade, global conservation and wildlife health. The U.S. also needs to work collaboratively with existing international initiatives and other nations. To that end, the State Department should leverage diplomatic discussions with foreign governments to persuade them to shut down high-risk wildlife markets and reduce demand for the consumption of high-risk wildlife.
In addition, Congress should utilize the next round of Covid-19 response legislation to inject increased funding into U.S. government programs that help eliminate high-risk wildlife trade—at home and abroad—and help prevent deforestation and habitat destruction in spillover hotspots.
Specifically, they should increase the capacity of agencies on the front lines of wildlife trade control, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Divisions of Law Enforcement and International Affairs, as well as USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
Both of these agencies have a number of overseas attaches, inspectors and other personnel stationed in priority countries around the world. More funding could help grow their ranks and facilitate greater coordination on wildlife health issues, including efforts to shutter high-risk wildlife markets around the world. Likewise, Congress should increase support for the State Department and USAID programs that work to combat trafficking of wildlife, reduce consumer demand for illegal and risky wildlife products, protect tropical forests and other key habitats, and promote solutions that integrate biodiversity conservation, global health and food security programs as part of pandemic prevention.
The bipartisan Global Wildlife Health and Pandemic Prevention Act, authored by Senators Chris Coons and Lindsey Graham, encompasses many of these solutions and would make a smart addition to Congress’ next recovery and response package. Moreover, the bill would require the Administration to identify and seek to shut down high-risk markets around the world—and authorize the President to sanction nations that allow such markets to persist. The bill would also provide additional support for U.S. government agencies to work with rural communities that rely on wildlife for nutrition, helping them to both diversify their protein sources and increase food safety.
As we have witnessed over the past six months, viruses have no respect for national borders, and a pathogen originating in the jungles of Southeast Asia or Africa can go global in no time once it makes the leap to humans. International conservation efforts constitute our first-line of defense. If we invest in keeping forests and other ecosystems intact, prevent high-risk trade in wildlife and work to enhance global food security and safety, we can stop more diseases like Covid-19 in their tracks—before an outbreak ever occurs.
This is the lesson of Covid-19, and the tragically long list of zoonotic diseases that preceded it. When we degrade the natural world, we tear down the very wall that keeps such threats at bay.
But when we strike a healthy balance between our needs and the needs of the planet, both people and nature flourish. It’s a lesson we hope will inform and guide the federal government’s response to the current public health crisis—and its efforts to prevent the next one.
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