Pathogens Can’t Read Permits
In Wuhan’s so-called “wet market,” most wild animals are sold legally. This includes bats, thought to be the origin of the COVID-19 virus. While clamping down on the illegal wildlife trade is important as we try to prevent diseases from spreading to humans, it’s not the whole picture.
This article — a response to another article published in January 2021 on the risks of zoonotic disease posed by the illegal wildlife trade — uses the same studies as the original authors to expand on their point, arguing that we must not overlook the risks of the legal wildlife trade. The illegal wildlife trade is valued at an estimated $23 billion; in comparison, the legal trade is worth over 17 times as much, at almost $400 billion.
The author acknowledges that the unknown health status of illegally imported wild animals means that on an individual basis they may pose higher risks than legally imported wildlife. However, the far greater scale of the legal wildlife trade makes it overall more dangerous. 95-99% of the value of the wildlife trade is legal. In the numbers game, it’s a much greater threat. The data backs this up: only 1% of infections of Trichinella (a parasitic roundworm associated with undercooked pork) in the E.U. were linked to illegally imported meat.
In addition to the large scale of the legal wildlife trade, surprisingly lax regulations aggravate the risks. Tick-borne diseases have been detected in the half a million reptiles and amphibians legally imported into Japan each year. Yet Japan has no quarantine regulations for these animals. Regulation in the U.S., one of the largest wildlife importers in the world, is similarly lacking, with almost no laws on disease surveillance. Only some salamanders, rodents, primates, and bats are monitored.
Tightening regulations is one way to reduce the risk, but this article brings home a broader point: it is the commodification of nonhuman animals, not simply the legal status of that commodification, that we need to contest. This holds true for farmed animals as well as wild ones. The cramped, unhygienic conditions of factory farms are perfectly legal. They’re also a breeding ground for diseases. Keeping the status quo means staring down the barrel. “Wet” market or supermarket, legal or illegal; when we buy nonhuman animals, we pay for the risk.