WASHINGTON— Conservation groups petitioned the Biden administration today to ban U.S. imports and exports of all live birds and mammals, including for food, pets and other uses. A proactive ban would reduce the risk of future zoonotic disease outbreaks like COVID-19, which jump from wildlife to people.
The petitions are directed to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If granted, they would represent a first step for the United States to develop a proactive response to zoonotic disease outbreaks.
“Only a proactive approach like banning the live bird and mammal trade will reduce the reckless exploitation of wildlife and help keep us safe,” said Tanya Sanerib, international legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We can’t control novel infectious diseases, but the Biden administration can act now to improve our relationship with nature, to avoid the next pandemic. COVID-19 has shown that disease origin stories are hard to unravel and vaccines take a long time to develop and administer. There are no Hollywood endings in this new pandemic era.”
An expert panel convened by the G20 group of nations concluded in late July that “the next pandemic will come within a decade.” Scientists estimate there are 631,000 to 827,000 undiscovered viruses out of millions in birds and mammals alone that could infect people. The petitions explain that neither a “surveillance” approach nor a reactive approach (banning imports after a pandemic strikes) is adequate to counter future disease risk.
Congress gave the Fish and Wildlife Service $10 million in supplemental funding in the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 to address wildlife trade issues related to the pandemic. Yet to date the agency has not taken any action.
In addition to seeking a ban on the import and export of live wild birds and mammals, the conservation groups are seeking the development of a comprehensive tracking program for all wildlife trade so the public can better understand the movement of wildlife into and out of the United States.
Right now, the U.S. government is unable to track wildlife that may host zoonoses in the case of an outbreak among animal or human populations. The Center and NRDC also released a plan in 2020 recommending further international leadership and coordination to address disease risk.
“The Biden administration needs to take steps to prevent the next devastating pandemic — and banning the international trade in wildlife is one of the most important steps,” said Zak Smith, senior attorney and director of international wildlife conservation at NRDC. “The transfer of disease from animals to humans has been at the heart of history's most damaging outbreaks. Ending the trade in wild birds and mammals eliminates one of the biggest pandemic risks, while also addressing a major driver of the world's biodiversity crisis, both of which constitute major threats to the global economy and public health."
Over the past 40 years, most major infectious disease outbreaks, including SARS, Ebola, avian flu and HIV, have been zoonotic, meaning they’ve jumped from wildlife to people. A wildlife zoonotic origin is also a leading theory for COVID-19. Mammals or birds have been implicated in most of these outbreaks and pose the greatest threat of future disease emergence.
Scientists estimate a lost GDP globally of $5.6 trillion from COVID-19 as of July 2020 but explained that for just 2% of these costs — $22 to $31 billion per year — the world could dramatically reduce the risk of future pandemics, in part by limiting trade in wildlife.