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The U.S. Bill to Prevent Future Pandemics

Ziryan Aziz explores how climate change and wildlife markets could lead to the rise in zoonotic diseases, and how a new U.S. bill could shape the future

Photo by Renan Kamikoga

A new bill – ‘The Preventing Future Pandemics Act (2020)’ – is set to close down live animal markets in the U.S. Introduced by Senators Cory Booker (Dem-NJ), John Cornyn (Rep-TX), and U.S. House Representatives Fred Upton (Rep-MI) and Mike Quigley (Dem-IL), this bipartisan bill will ban the import, export and sale of wild animal products for consumption in the US.

The bill has emerged from discussions on how the world can protect itself from future pandemics: just as the COVID-19 virus is believed to have been transferred from bats to humans, there is a growing fear that other deadly pandemics could be spread through practices such as live food markets, where humans are in contact with animals and their blood, faeces and other bodily fluids.

Wildlife Markets and Zoonotic Diseases

The U.S.A. is among the top global consumers of legal wildlife and wildlife products, accounting for 20% of the global wildlife market, and importing 224 million live animals and 833 million other wildlife specimens every year. Currently, the majority of animals and products entering the US are from China and Southeast Asia, such as Vietnam, though Indonesia is currently the largest exporter of live animals.

Scientists have observed that commonly-traded mammals such as rodents, bats and primates can be vectors of 75% of known zoonotic diseases: those which transfer from animal to humans. Throughout human history, such infamously deadly viruses as HIV, MERS, Ebola, and ZIKA originated from the animal world before making the leap to humans. As such, global pandemics could be on the rise due to animal habitat destruction, climate change, and the continuing wildlife trade.

This is not the first time the U.S. has made some headway in combating the live animal trade. In 2014, the Obama administration launched a National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking, but this was purely directed at the trade itself, and not curving possible pandemics in the future.

However, the new Preventing Future Pandemics Act takes a more direct approach by offering agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Agency for International Development a half billion dollar financial package to build upon their current efforts in combating the trade.

However, the new Preventing Future Pandemics Act takes a more direct approach by offering agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Agency for International Development a half-billion-dollar financial package to build upon their current efforts in combating the trade.tional trade in live wildlife." Cory Booker, U.S. Senator

Climate Change and Future Pandemics

A recent World Health Organisation (WHO) event highlighted that a major challenge of dealing with future pandemics is the common tendency for countries to adopt a “panic-then-forget” cycle once the outbreak is under control, and other national problems are soon prioritised. This prevents effective action against preventing future pandemics.

In addition, climate change is a critical factor in the increasing probability of future outbreaks of zoonotic diseases. The changing global climate and the ever-increasing destruction of biodiversity could see a decrease in predator populations due to habitat loss, which could hence increase rodent populations, and thereby encourage virus outbreaks. A situation like this isn’t all hypothetical: in 1999, a record-breaking period of rain in Panama, coupled with an explosion of the local rat population, fuelled an outbreak of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, a virus not seen in Panama before then.

Melting permafrost is also a cause of concern when it comes to global pandemics. The permanent layer of ice beneath the subsoil – known as permafrost – is melting at an unprecedented rate in the arctic circle and is now a major cause for concern for epidemiologists. The bodies of dead animals and humans buried in the permafrost are beginning to thaw, in some cases releasing the diseases that killed them. In 2005, NASA uncovered bacteria that had been buried in a frozen Alaskan pond for 32,000 years. Two years later, bacteria from 8 million years ago were revived from frozen ice. Similar cases are also reported in Russia, where bodies from the stone age have been found harbouring the smallpox DNA fragments.

More drastically, the revival of these ancient viruses has directly impacted some communities. In Russia, one boy died and twenty were hospitalised in 2016 after anthrax from the carcass of a reindeer that died 75 years ago had entered the nearby subsoil and waterways after a heat wave. This incident led some to worry that further viruses and diseases from the past could be unearthed as the permafrost thaws. In particular, there is a concern in towns with graveyards, as scientists have discovered samples of smallpox DNA on bodies of people who died from epidemics in the 19th and 20th century.

Nevertheless, what the Preventing Future Pandemics Act bill signifies is a significant step for the U.S. in combating the ever-growing risk of future pandemics. By banning the trade of live animals, a market which is historically known to have devastating effects on endangered species, perhaps the U.S. can provide an example for how the international community can follow to avoid further global pandemics.

Similar: President-Elect Joe Biden to Re-join Paris Agreement

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