On Covid’s U.S. Two-Year Anniversary, It’s Time for Real Pandemic Prevention

Welcome to the era of pandemics. Scientists have been warning us for years that new pathogens passed from wild animals will emerge more frequently, kill more people, and wreak more havoc on our interconnected economies.

As the human population continues to grow and we destroy more of the natural world and interact with more wildlife, we put ourselves at greater risk of diseases emerging that can infect people.

“The next pandemic will come within a decade,” a G20 panel concluded recently. When you look at the past 25 to 30 years, that shouldn’t be a surprise. Over the past couple of decades, we’ve witnessed the emergence of novel diseases like HIV, Ebola, SARs, avian and swine flu, and now Covid-19. On average a new infectious disease emerges every eight months.

These diseases materialize due to our unsustainable and reckless relationship with nature and wildlife. Ebola and HIV outbreaks have been connected to hunting and exploitation of wildlife. Demand for African rodents for the pet trade resulted in a U.S. monkey pox outbreak in 2003.

When we think of the wildlife trade, many in the United States assume it’s a problem happening in other parts of the world. But the United States is a major consumer of wildlife, and we make up 20% of the global wildlife market. We import more than 224 million live animals a year. Our enormous appetite for pets, décor, fashion, wild meats, unproven medicines and other items drives wildlife exploitation.

It’s a reckless and selfish business that can lead to pathogens emerging as people capture, process, trade and sell wildlife to satisfy our whims. The longer an animal is in the trade supply chain, the greater the stress it experiences, the more pathogens it sheds, and the more vulnerable it becomes to picking up pathogens from other species. Exploitation and trade create the perfect breeding ground for pathogen emergence.

Despite this, the United States barely ever screens or tests any imported wildlife for diseases, and only a handful of wildlife species are banned from entering the country because of disease risk.

Generally, the United States employs a reactive “ban it after it infects people” approach. But that makes no sense given the speed with which a pathogen can spread around the world in our global society — as the Covid-19 virus and its variants have demonstrated — and the devastating consequences of pandemics.

And our exploitation of nature and wildlife isn’t just making us sick. It’s fueling the extinction crisis. Vibrant ecosystems and natural habitats around the world are unraveling to fuel our wildlife addiction. A review of U.S. imports of bats, primates and rodents over a five-year period found more than 93% of bats, 90% of rodents and 21% of primates or their parts, products, samples and other specimens were taken from wild-caught animals.

The scale of the current extinction crisis — driven in part by overexploitation and trade in wildlife products — is staggering. In 2020 a panel of the world’s foremost scientists warned that around 1 million species will be driven toward extinction in the coming decades if we fail to change our ways.

As we rebuild from the pandemic, we must do more than merely improve how we respond to pandemics. We must also take action to prevent the next one from emerging. For this, healing our relationship with nature is key. That’s why my organization, the Center for Biological Diversity, petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to ban trade in wild birds and mammals. The goal is to both reduce the risk of an outbreak and protect wildlife from extinction.

A ban might sound severe, but more than 5.5 million people worldwide have died because of the current pandemic. And it cost the world more than $5.6 trillion in lost GDP in 2020 alone.

The International Monetary Fund estimates that the Covid-19 pandemic will cause $28 trillion in lost economic output through 2025. Wildlife trade, excluding seafood, timber and plants, generates less than $40 billion (not trillion) a year on average. That doesn’t come close to balancing out the massive damage — devastating loss of life and significant financial impacts — created by pandemics fueled by wildlife trade.

For most of us, the thought of reliving 2020 and 2021 strikes fear in our hearts. It’s time to channel that fear into action on pandemic prevention. A good place to start is curtailing the trade in mammals and birds.

You can help: Join us in demanding action to prevent pandemics and preserve the natural world — before it’s too late.

Graphics by Dipika Kadaba.



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