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Legal wildlife trade in the US stokes risk of another coronavirus-like pandemic in the country, warn experts

A report states safeguards designed to keep diseased animals from being imported into the US have sizable holes. Its regulations may allow animals presenting other zoonotic disease risks to enter the US
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

In 2019, America’s import of wildlife and wildlife products was worth more than $4.3 billion. Much of the public discussion around Covid-19 has focused on the potential role of the illegal wildlife trade in spreading viruses. However, legal wildlife trade is a multibillion-dollar industry, and the US and other high-income countries are the largest importers that drive the live animal trade for legitimate wildlife trade is a contributing risk factor to a coronavirus-like pandemic, say experts. 

During 2019, wildlife inspectors processed 191,492 declared shipments and over $4.3 billion of wildlife and wildlife products in the US. According to another analysis, 11,569,796 individual live wild animals were exported from 189 different countries between 2012 and 2016. China was the largest exporter for mammals: it sent 98,879 different animals from seven different species to 10 different countries between 2012 and 2016. The US was the biggest importer of live mammals: it received 63,672 different animals from 73 different species from 36 different countries between 2012 and 2016, representing 62.4% of all such mammal trade during that period. It was also the biggest importer live amphibians (135,327 animals; 63.6% of such trade between 2012 and 2016). 

“Zoonotic diseases cause millions of deaths every year. Diseases such as Ebola, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and avian influenza cause economic losses at the global level and jeopardize diplomatic relations between countries. As wildlife are the source of at least 70% of all emerging diseases and given the ongoing concerns associated with wildlife trade as a disease transmission mechanism, we provide a ‘global snapshot’ of the legal trade in live wild animals,” said researchers in their findings published in Global Ecology and Conservation.

The review showed that legal live animal trade is being mostly driven by high-income countries included in the World Bank, and by “western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic” countries. “Our analysis shows that 11,569,796 individual live wild animals, representing 1,316 different species were exported from 189 different countries between 2012 and 2016. This type of commercial trade activity is already recognized as a dangerous transmission pathway for zoonotic diseases. The OIE WAHIS (World Animal Health Information System)-Wild interface contained a total of 82 zoonotic diseases/pathogens of mammals, amphibians, birds, and reptiles causing 3,131 disease cases in 54 countries during 2008-2016,” they say.

There are many complex factors that influence a country's risk of transmitting zoonotic diseases of wild animal origin and its ability to respond to them. The volumes of live wild animals traded between countries is an important factor, yet a proper understanding of this particular trade dynamic is important and can help to direct limited resources (such as funds and expertise) currently available to prevent zoonotic disease outbreak, said experts. “The literature search revealed the global health risks posed by the international legal live trade in wild animal species both as pandemics, epidemics, and outbreaks have received little research attention so far as our search methods identified only 28 relevant articles published since 1945,” they add. 

The international legal trade in live animals for commercial and personal use is a big and burgeoning business. Mostly the US and other high-income countries, the largest importers, drive the live animal trade, shows analysis. (Getty Images)

A 2017 analysis also said that the US is a top global consumer at the national level of legal wildlife and wildlife products, along with China, and the EU as a whole. China and Southeast Asia were a primary region of origin for US wildlife imports. Over 11 billion specimens and an additional 977 million kilograms of wildlife were imported between 2000-2013, with one-third of shipments containing live animals, mostly for the aquatic and pet trade. With this volume of live wildlife entering the US for commercial purposes, concerns were raised regarding the unwanted side-effect of invasive alien species and their pathogens. “Many countries of origin for legal and illegal wildlife imports to the US include “hotspots” of emerging and re-emerging infectious and zoonotic pathogens such as the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronavirus, and Nipah virus, as well as economically important livestock diseases,” the report warned. 

A 2019 study found that at least one in five vertebrate species on Earth are bought and sold on the wildlife market, the trade estimates for which are 40-60% higher than prior recorded estimates. The authors found that 5,579 animals, or roughly 18% of the total vertebrate species included in their analysis, are currently being traded globally. One of the most recent estimates this year curated 15 years of the importation of wildlife and their derived products into the US (2000–2014), including over 2 million wildlife or wildlife product shipments, representing more than 60 biological classes and over 3.2 billion live organisms. 

Multiple reports warned of serious gaps

A 2005 National Academies of Sciences report referred to a “patchwork of federal policies and agencies with limited or ill-defined jurisdiction” for the importation of wildlife, “a significant gap in preventing and rapidly detecting emergent diseases,” and “a lack of coordinated federal oversight” over disease issues associated with these animals. It found that wildlife is imported daily with little or no health monitoring, increasing the likelihood that zoonotic or animal diseases will enter the US. In the November 2009 issue of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or CDCs journal, Emerging Infectious Diseases, scientists reported on their study of mammal imports and concluded that these imports provide numerous opportunities for zoonotic pathogens to enter the US. The study recommended increased surveillance of imported animals that pose an increased risk of harboring zoonotic pathogens.

Scientists had warned in 2009 that wildlife imports into the US are fragmented and insufficiently coordinated, failing to accurately list more than four in five species entering the country, a team of scientists has found. The effect is that a range of diseases is introduced into the US, potentially decimating species, devastating ecosystems and threatening food supply chains and human health, said researchers. The team analyzed the Law Enforcement Management Information System (LEMIS) data gathered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service from 2000 through 2006 and found the US imported upward of 1.5 billion live wildlife animals. The team also found that more than 86% of the shipments were not classified to the level of species, despite federal guidelines that mandate species-level labeling. The lack of accurate reporting makes it impossible to fully assess the diversity of animals imported or calculate the risk of nonnative species or the diseases they may carry, the team wrote.

Gaps among regulatory bodies were also highlighted. A 2010 report by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) said that safeguards designed to keep diseased animals from being imported into the US have sizable holes and the federal agencies that oversee those safeguards need to coordinate better to improve them. It warned that gaps in its regulations may allow animals presenting other zoonotic disease risks to enter the US. “While APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) has regulations in place to protect agricultural animals from the risk of diseases in live animal imports, CDC does not fully use its statutory authority to prevent the importation of live animals that may pose a risk of zoonotic diseases and FWS generally does not restrict the entry of imported wildlife that may pose disease risks,” said the report.

The GAO said that while the CDC has regulations to bar the importation of animals that may pose a previously identified disease risk to humans, it has no process for identifying risks from some emerging diseases linked to imported animals. As an example of gaps in the CDC approach to imported animal diseases, the report said the agency has barred rodents from Africa since the monkeypox outbreak of 2003, but rodents from other places can be imported without any screening for diseases.

The GAO recommended developing and implementing, in coordination with the relevant federal agencies, a strategy for their collaboration in preventing the importation of animals that may be carrying zoonotic and animal diseases into the US. However, a follow-up assessment found that the recommendations were not implemented as agencies cited concerns about the economic and staffing resources needed to implement the strategy and key planned actions. 

Many countries of origin for legal and illegal wildlife imports to the US include “hotspots” of emerging and re-emerging infectious and zoonotic pathogens such as the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronavirus, and Nipah virus, as well as economically important livestock diseases, experts had warned. (Getty Images)

Jonathan Kolby, a former US Fish, and Wildlife Service law enforcement officer and policy specialist focusing on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), writes in the National Geographic that with few exceptions, the US has no laws that call for disease surveillance for wildlife entering the country. He said the diseases that “hitchhike into the country on legally imported wildlife” continue to go largely unnoticed.

“The vast majority of wild animal imports are not tested. Inspectors with the Fish and Wildlife Service are the first to set eyes on an imported shipment of animals, and they’re charged with enforcing a variety of national and international laws, regulations, and treaties that focus on preventing illegal and unsustainable trade. But its mandate doesn’t extend to monitoring animal or human health. Its only responsibilities related to the disease are the enforcement of rules limiting trade in certain fish and salamander species, which have the potential to spread devastating disease to other animals of their kind,” said Kolby. 

In the 2018 study too, the experts said that in the US, current regulations are inadequate to assess the risk of imported wildlife as hosts of harmful pathogens. The team said that while the human health risks associated with live animal trade can never be eliminated, proper pathogen surveillance focused on this type of international commercial activity is critical to protect global human health. “The 13 highest income countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Portugal, Qatar, Singapore, Spain, UK, United Arab Emirates, US) that create the biggest demand for wildlife trade can lead the establishment of such intergovernmental body to work for better integration of surveillance efforts worldwide. This initiative could help to steer available resources to countries where large volumes of live wild animals are being sourced and sent to help prevent zoonotic virus spillover from wildlife to humans,” experts recommended.