The growing prevalence of zoonotic diseases, underscored by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ongoing loss of biodiversity around the world make tackling the illicit trade in wild animals imperative, since it threatens global public health and the extinction of endangered species. Fortunately, a practical approach is there for the taking. The Global Initiative to End Wildlife Crime has launched a campaign to fill gaping holes in two international treaties: the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, known as CITES, and the U.N. Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, or UNTOC. The new Biden administration should embrace this initiative and nurture bipartisan U.S. consensus behind both treaty modifications.
SARS-CoV-2, the virus currently ravaging the world, is just the latest pathogen to have jumped to humanity from a wild animal reservoir—in this case, horseshoe bats—following previous zoonoses responsible for HIV/AIDS, Marburg, Ebola, H5N1, H1N1, SARS, MERS, West Nile and Zika, among others. And it will not be the last. Scientists estimate that wild mammals and birds host 1.7 million undiscovered viruses, half of which could potentially infect humans. The surge in zoonotic diseases is driven by increased human contact with previously isolated species. As humans proliferate and enter, exploit and degrade new habitats, they and their domesticates are exposed to novel viruses. Given global transportation links, pathogens acquired in distant locales quickly spread. COVID-19 underlines the complex interdependencies among environmental, animal and human health, and the need for a “One Health” approach, as advocated by the World Health Organization, to address all three.
More specifically, the COVID-19 pandemic suggests that the illegal and unregulated or poorly regulated trade in wild animals threatens global health security by providing new vectors for dangerous pathogens. Although scientists continue to debate the proximate origins of the initial outbreak in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, including which species may have served as an intermediate host for SARS-CoV-2, most regard live animal or “wet” markets like Wuhan’s now-shuttered Huanan Seafood Market as providing the “perfect conditions” for the transmission of novel viruses. Many such markets source their exotic offerings from organized criminal enterprises.