House of Representatives
The Preventing Future Pandemics Act recognizes the urgent need for a global approach to emerging diseases and the threat they pose, placing the United States in a strong position to lead the fight to reduce the risk of future zoonotic disease outbreaks.
The bill would outlaw the import, export, and sale of live wildlife for human consumption in the United States. It would also provide funding to deploy law enforcement officers to countries where there is a flourishing trade in at-risk species and to help international communities that dangerously rely on wildlife consumption transition to alternative food sources. Moreover, it calls on the State Department to form international coalitions and pursue diplomatic measures to encourage closures of live wildlife markets abroad.
Zoonotic diseases are defined as pathogens transmissible between animals and humans. Approximately one quarter of deaths worldwide are caused by infectious diseases. Of these, 60 percent are considered zoonotic, and more than 70 percent of zoonotic diseases originate with wildlife.1
Incidents of emerging zoonotic diseases have increased significantly since 1940,2 a trend that strongly correlates with accelerating exploitation of natural resources and precipitous declines in biodiversity. These patterns of exploitation, including the wildlife trade, have brought humans into much closer contact with wildlife, increasing the risk of pathogen transmission.
In just the past 45 years, the worst pandemics and epidemics have all originated with the trade and consumption of animals amid the destruction of their habitat:
- The 2002-2003 SARS pandemic, which resulted in a recorded 774 deaths, was traced back to a live-animal market in Guangdong, China. Experts believe the virus originated in horseshoe bats, and was transmitted via an intermediary, likely masked palm civets being sold in the market for their meat.3
- The first reported outbreak of Ebola occurred in 1976, but it seems the virus existed long before that. African fruit bats are suspected as the source animal. People were likely infected as they encroached upon forested areas and consumed bushmeat.4 The worst outbreak, in 2014-16, resulted in 11,325 deaths.5
- The AIDS pandemic was initiated by the transmission of HIV from chimpanzees to humans in southeastern Cameroon. This devastating zoonotic disease has infected at least 60 million people and caused more than 25 million deaths.6
- Humans have experienced several outbreaks of avian influenza, an umbrella term for several different strains of the influenza A virus. All the strains have been found in wild water birds, and several have spread to birds raised for food, increasing the risk of human exposure.7
- Swine influenza, or H1N1, emerged in 2009 and is believed to have originated from interaction between influenza viruses circulating in North American pig herds and Eurasian pig herds.8
- Zika virus was first identified in monkeys in Uganda in 1947 and first recorded in humans in 1952.9 It is spread by mosquitos, which are becoming more prevalent as amphibians and other natural predators of these insects decline.
The animal-human interactions that trigger these zoonotic diseases are not limited to other nations. As one of the world’s top importers of wildlife, the United States is responsible for an estimated 20 percent of the global wildlife trade. In 2003, the United States monkeypox outbreak was the result of importing African giant pouched rats, dormice, and rope squirrels from Africa. These rodents transmitted the virus to prairie dogs, who in turn were sold as pets and transmitted the virus to people.10
Live wildlife markets, the primary focus of the Preventing Future Pandemics Act, constitute just one segment of this multibillion-dollar trade, yet COVID-19 has taught us that they can have serious repercussions for public health. At such markets, wild animals such as civets and bats are crammed together near humans, creating an ideal scenario for the spillover of diseases to which we have no immunity. Experts believe that the current outbreak of COVID-19 originated at such a market.11
The COVID-19 pandemic is a tragic reminder that our reckless treatment of the natural world has severe ramifications. Unless we curtail the rate of environmental decline due to human activity, it is inevitable that global pandemics will continue to emerge at an escalating rate. The solution is clear: We must curb wildlife exploitation to reduce disease risk. Protecting nature is more important now than ever, and it is time for the United States to become a global leader in addressing habitat loss and wildlife trade.