The World Health Organization is calling on nations to end wildlife markets because of the high risk they pose for the spread of pathogens like the coronavirus that can jump from animals to humans.

This week, David Nabarro, a medical doctor and the special envoy on COVID-19 and special representative of the United Nations secretary general for food security and nutrition, told the BBC that 75 percent of emerging infections come from the animal kingdom.

“This is dangerous. We have similar concerns about bushmeat. Really, be very, very careful when you’re basically eating wild animal meat or killing wild animals. All these things are higher risk,” he said.

Nabarro’s statements on behalf of the WHO, which has 192 member countries, including China, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam—where many of these markets exist—came this week even as media reports circulated about wildlife markets beginning to reopen in China. The WHO does not have the authority to require governments to close down such markets, but, Nabarro said, “what we have to do is offer advice and guidance, and there’s very clear advice from the Food and Agriculture Organization and WHO that said there are real dangers in these kinds of environments.”

In recent weeks, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the United Nations’ acting head of biodiversity, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have made similar calls to end live wildlife markets around the globe. Fauci has called wildlife markets "a superhighway" for transmission of disease.

The Humane Society family has been urging the WHO to take a stand against wildlife markets and we are pleased to see the global health body do so. Earlier this month, Humane Society International along with 240 organizations around the globe, sent a letter to the WHO urging it to recommend a permanent ban on wildlife markets and the use of wildlife in traditional medicine to governments worldwide.

The Humane Society Legislative Fund lobbied support for a letter co-signed by nearly 70 U.S. Senators and Representatives to the WHO, the Organization for Animal Health and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, urging them to take aggressive action to shut down live wildlife markets and ban the international trade in wildlife that is not intended for conservation purposes.

Earlier this month, HSI released a white paper detailing scientific evidence of the link between COVID-19 and the wildlife trade that has been sent to 188 governments worldwide. HSI also sent an open letter to governments around the world asking them to ban wildlife trade (including wildlife markets), transport and consumption.

While we have expanded our efforts to move lawmakers and global organizations to take action because of the urgency created by the coronavirus pandemic, this is not a new fight for us. We have been calling for the closure of wildlife markets for many years now not only due to animal welfare concerns but because these markets often trade in endangered and at-risk animals or exploit captive bred animals.

Wildlife markets are filthy, crowded places where sick, injured and scared animals are displayed in small cages. Once purchased, they are often slaughtered on-site, creating a perfect breeding ground for transmission of disease from animals to humans. Moreover, many of the animals traded and killed at the markets are threatened with extinction. In fact, global wildlife experts say trade in live wild animals is one of the biggest threats to the survival of some species.

Health authorities have long cautioned the world about the risks these markets pose to human health: wildlife markets have been implicated in the spread of several disease outbreaks in recent years, including Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), bird flu, Ebola and Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). The novel coronavirus pandemic was traced to a wildlife market in Wuhan, China.

Now, we hope to see decisive permanent action from key nations to end the wildlife trade and its connections to pandemic risk. China in February announced a ban on wildlife consumption as food, but it has not yet codified that ban into law. This week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Chinese authorities are offering tax breaks to the multibillion-dollar animal products industry for the export of wild animals.

Around the world, the trade in wildlife continues. The United States, where hundreds of thousands of wild animals are imported and commercially traded each year, is a WHO member state, and we urge the federal government here, as well as state governments, to crack down on the wildlife trade to minimize the likelihood of another pandemic. This trade causes tremendous suffering to millions of animals each year and now, with the novel coronavirus sickening nearly two million people worldwide and killing more than 120,000, the writing is on the wall. The wildlife trade is rife with dangers, and the sooner we put an end to it, the safer the world will be.

Sara Amundson is president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.

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