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COVID-19 and Wildlife Trade: Perspectives and Proposed Actions

April 14, 2020

COVID-19, a new disease linked to a novel coronavirus, has caused a worldwide health pandemic. Connections to the wildlife trade as the source of the virus has spotlighted the devastating impacts this trade can have on human health and economies. The origin of the outbreak is believed to have been in a “wet market” in Wuhan, China, that sold live and dead wildlife and domestic animals along with other foods for human consumption. The World Health Organization has determined that COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, meaning it originated from an animal. Other zoonotic diseases to date have included SARS, Ebola, Bird Flu, and MERS (transmitted from mammals and birds). Its exact origins are still unknown, but COVID-19 is suspected to have originated in bats and may have jumped to humans via an intermediary wild species.

Recognizing the significant threat posed by illegal, unregulated, and high-risk wildlife markets, the Government of China has taken emergency measures to close their wildlife markets and ban the consumption of wildlife for food. But the threat of viral transmission and pandemic spread is not just an issue for China. Many countries have wildlife markets that are high-risk, particularly in Southeast Asia and parts of Africa. It will take a concerted global effort to mitigate these risks. Reducing threats and the potential for pandemic sources from wildlife will require shutting down high-risk markets, strengthening law enforcement efforts, reducing consumer demand for key wildlife products while recognizing the legitimate protein needs of the rural poor that are often met by the harvest of wild animals.

Preventing future pandemics
The path to prevention of future pandemics lies in a holistic approach to conserving nature across the globe. Specifically, action is needed in five areas:

  1. Eliminating high-risk wildlife trade, markets, and consumption;
  2. Implementing conservation measures to address environmental change and habitat loss, including deforestation, as habitat degradation and loss is correlated with zoonotic and communicable disease transmission;
  3. Improving the management of livestock to reduce zoonotic disease transmission; 
  4. Ensuring the nutritional and dietary needs of the rural poor are safely met, especially where communities rely on wild species for protein; and 
  5. Large-scale behavior change to eliminate demand for and consumption of high-risk wildlife while reducing environmental disruption associated with zoonotic diseases.

Addressing high-risk wildlife trade and markets
WWF is ready to contribute, building on decades of experience, and specifically to address the following immediate priorities:

  • Shut down high-risk markets and trade in high-risk taxa, including high-risk wet markets selling wildlife for human consumption and ensuring effective enforcement is in place. This includes cracking down on the illegal and unregulated wildlife trade as a contributor;
  • Reduce demand for wildlife products, particularly those for human consumption associated with high-risk markets and taxa;
  • Understand and mitigate the negative effects that closing wildlife markets may have on the rural poor, especially Indigenous Peoples and local communities.

WWF supports the actions of the Government of China in closing markets that sell wildlife for human consumption and urges other countries to quickly adopt similar regulations to reduce zoonotic disease risks. This may require a hard look at wildlife trade policy and enforcement, and WWF has offered its technical expertise and field capacities.

Public opinion polling
WWF commissioned the GlobeScan market research firm to conduct a survey among the general public in Hong Kong SAR, Japan, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam to gauge public sentiment on the issue in early March 2020, as COVID-19 was beginning to sweep across Asia. The survey measured support for the closure of illegal and unregulated wildlife markets within the context of the COVID-19 global pandemic. These markets were chosen since they are important Asian links to wildlife trade, and four of them (except Japan) have active illegal and unregulated markets selling wildlife for human consumption as well as other uses. During the period of March 3-11, 2020, GlobeScan interviewed 5,000 respondents (i.e., 1000 respondents from each of the five markets) and found that 93% of respondents in the four regions with active wildlife markets would support efforts by their governments and health ministries to close all illegal and unregulated markets selling wild animals.

Convening key stakeholders
To address high-risk wildlife trade and markets, WWF is also building connections with preeminent wildlife health, zoonotic disease, and public health experts for joint action, including a scientist sign-on letter from experts in this space calling for the closure of high-risk wildlife markets to prevent the next pandemic. We are also mobilizing the public and affected constituencies (e.g. travel industry, e-commerce sector, and other impacted sectors) to join the call. For example, we are working with the transport sector to help prevent future pandemics by building in both preventative measures that will help reduce smuggling of wildlife and measures for better regulation of the transport of potentially risky animals and their products. WWF will also continue to work with partners to drive permanent change via high-risk wildlife market closures, strong enforcement in both physical and online markets, and evidence-based consumer behavior change approaches.

Action needed at the global level
Robust action across disciplines is paramount to curtail future pandemics and requires concerted commitment from policymakers, conservationists, scientists, and health experts. In particular, urgent steps are needed by relevant authorities to:

  • Shut down high-risk wildlife markets, with a focus on those in high-density urban areas selling wildlife and wildlife products intended for human consumption;
  • Scale up efforts to combat wildlife trafficking and stop the trade in high-risk taxa, including through strengthened enforcement and transboundary collaboration;
  • Increase efforts to reduce consumer demand for high-risk wildlife products;
  • Strengthen the Global Health Security and Surveillance Agenda to prevent, detect, and respond to potentially lethal disease outbreaks, including those that have yet to be identified;
  • Ensure effective implementation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) by its 183 member nations;
  • Step up measures to halt biodiversity loss, while ensuring that the health and food security needs of local communities are appropriately met.
  • Prioritize a call to action by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to address zoonotic disease threats associated with high-risk taxa and high-risk wildlife markets.

Actions the United States can take
While many governments must play a role, the US has a particular opportunity to lead in this effort. Steps should be considered to:

  • Ensure a whole-of-government approach to the development of protocols and actions to prevent future global pandemics, including the possible institution of a US government interagency Zoonotic Disease Task Force, in collaboration with existing international working groups and other nations;
  • Prioritize action to shut down high-risk wildlife markets and reduce demand for wildlife products in US government high-level diplomacy with other nations;
  • Scale-up efforts to combat high-risk wildlife trade and reduce zoonotic disease transmission by increasing funding for US government programs to eliminate illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade; reduce consumption of risky wildlife and wildlife products; prevent the destruction of wildlife habitat and biodiversity; and help local communities in countries of origin address zoonotic disease transmission and secure safe and diversified sources of food and protein;
  • Reauthorize and update the END Wildlife Trafficking Act to reflect the role that wildlife trafficking plays in the emergence of highly infectious diseases, including potential future pandemics, and take steps through legislation and Administrative action to prevent high-risk taxa and harmful zoonotic pathogens from entering the United States;
  • Significantly increase funding to US Government agencies on the front lines of efforts to prevent high-risk wildlife trade within and into the United States, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) Division of Law Enforcement (wildlife inspectors and special agents) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), including increasing the number of attachés and inspectors stationed in key countries to help tackle illegal wildlife trade and identify high-risk markets.

    There are many vital actions needed to secure a future for nature, people, our economies, and health, but reducing the immediate threat of market-based viral transmission potential and protecting impoverished communities from the worst impacts of the current virus threat are part of a first phase of action. The subsequent phase for the longer-term health and prosperity of humanity will take a major shift in how we think about and maintain the living planet around us. As nature is lost and disrupted, the likelihood of pandemics and other disease outbreaks increases. Protecting nature will help prevent future pandemics and is therefore preventative healthcare, with greater global security and economic stability.

    For more information, please contac[email protected].