Wildlife Trade, COVID-19, and Other Zoonotic Diseases

April 6, 2020
Wildlife Trade, COVID-19, and Other Zoonotic Diseases
from wildlife, such as bats, and were transmitted to humans
Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) is caused by a
via intermediary hosts, such as civets, camels, and apes.
novel virus: the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome
Humans may have contracted these diseases, in part,
Coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2). In March 2020, the World
through the wildlife trade, according to scientists.
Health Organization (WHO) characterized it as a pandemic;
the disease has reportedly spread to more than 180
Zoonoses Associated with Wildlife Trade
countries. The origin of the COVID-19 outbreak is not
certain, though several studies have identified high genetic
2019—SARS-CoV-2: Scientists identified the virus in bats
similarity between SARS-CoV-2 and coronaviruses found
and similar versions of the virus in other animals, including
in bat species that were sold in a “wet market” (a market
pangolins (i.e., scaly anteater). Some scientists hypothesize
that sells live animals and perishable goods) in Wuhan,
that pangolins are intermediary hosts for the virus and may
have transmitted it to humans. Some pangolin products are
legally sold in China; however, a large amount are trafficked.
SARS-CoV-2, like most coronaviruses, is zoonotic,
2002-2003—SARS-CoV: Scientists identified the virus in
meaning it is derived from viruses, bacteria, and other
horseshoe bats, civets, and other animals sold in wildlife
pathogens that are transmitted between animals and
markets in China. Civets are thought to have transmitted the
humans. Transmission of zoonotic diseases (i.e., zoonoses)
virus to humans.
is reportedly facilitated by activities such as land clearing,
2014-2016 and 2018-2020—Ebola Virus: Ebola in humans
close human-animal contact (e.g., in live animal markets),
can be traced to the handling and consumption of infected
hunting and consuming wild animals, and the wildlife trade.
wildlife carcasses, especial y apes. Bushmeat (meat from wild
SARS-CoV-2 is one of several zoonotic viruses that are
African animals) trade is linked to Ebola.
likely linked to this trade, which brings humans and wild
animals in close proximity. The trade increases the risk of
2004-2014—Simian Foamy Virus and Herpesvirus:
virus transmission between hosts that might not otherwise
Confiscated il egal y imported bushmeat entering the United
interact in nature, leading some scientists to contend that
States showed evidence of zoonotic retroviruses that could
wildlife trade can exacerbate the spread of zoonoses.
transfer to humans.
COVID-19’s health and economic toll may increase
Wildlife Trade and Trafficking
congressional interest in the relationship between wildlife
trade and zoonotic diseases. Options for congressional
Trade in wildlife, both legal and illegal, forms a vast
economy and has contributed to outbreaks of some zoonotic
action may include legislation and funding of programs to
address zoonotic diseases at their source, increase
diseases. Legal and illegal wildlife trade can range from
surveillance of emerging zoonotic diseases, increase
small-scale local bartering to formal commercial-sized
national and international markets facilitated by organized
oversight of the legal wildlife trade, and increase measures
to reduce the illegal wildlife trade.
criminal groups. Demand for products, such as traditional
medicines, pets, food, and decorations, often exceed legal
Zoonotic Diseases and EIDs
supply, contributing to the illegal trade. Such demand is
Most emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) originate in
notably high in East Asia, where rising economic affluence
animals, and involve interactions between wildlife,
has increased demand for products such as rhino horns and
pangolin meat and scales. The illegal wildlife trade, also
livestock, and people. Changing land use practices (e.g.,
land cleared for development) play an increasingly
known as wildlife trafficking, is estimated to generate from
$7 billion to more than $20 billion annually.
important role in animal-to-human disease transmission.
Scientists estimate that approximately 60% of EIDs are
zoonotic and that approximately 72% originate from
Legal but poorly regulated trade in wildlife and human
wildlife. Some scientists have identified tropical forests in
contact with wild animals can increase human exposure to
zoonotic diseases. Some studies suggest that wet wildlife
Southeast Asia and Africa and areas where land use
practices are altering native ecosystems as hotspots for
markets, which often comprise animals in tightly packed
future emerging zoonotic diseases.
spaces, are potential locations for zoonotic disease
transmission. Some scientists assert that humans who
Since 2000, several high profile zoonotic disease outbreaks
frequent open wildlife markets may increase their risk of
have affected humans, such as Severe Acute Respiratory
contracting zoonotic diseases because of their exposure to
wild animals. In addition, the markets bring together
Syndrome Coronavirus (SARS-CoV), Middle East
Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV and Ebola
animals that may carry diseases from different ecosystems
Virus). Scientists assert that these viruses likely originated
into one location, facilitating the spread of disease in a way

Wildlife Trade, COVID-19, and Other Zoonotic Diseases
that may not typically happen in nature. The legal and
Internationally, the World Organization for Animal Health
illegal wildlife trade is addressed by several entities.
(OIE) analyzes and disseminates information related to
animal disease control. Jointly with WHO and the Food and
Federal Role
Agriculture Organization, the OIE operates the Global
Key implementing agencies for U.S. initiatives against
Early Warning System (GLEWS+), which aims to share
wildlife trafficking include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
data and improve risk assessments related to zoonoses.
Service (FWS) as well as the U.S. Department of State
(State) and U.S. Agency for International Development
Issues for Congress
(USAID). FWS has domestic and international law
Funding and oversight approaches are available to Congress
enforcement and investigative responsibilities related to
to potentially address zoonoses and wildlife trade.
wildlife trafficking, including collaboration with foreign
law enforcement entities such as the International Criminal
Land Use Change and Development. Factors such as
Police Organization (INTERPOL). State and USAID lead a
land-use change and deforestation may increase overlap of
variety of intergovernmental and public diplomacy
wildlife and humans, enhancing zoonotic disease
initiatives related to wildlife trafficking, including
transmission. Some stakeholders recommend increasing
contributions to international organizations, non-
U.S. foreign assistance to reduce or mitigate land-use
governmental partnerships, and bilateral foreign assistance
change in zoonotic disease hotspots. Others may question
for biodiversity conservation and law enforcement.
the effect of this assistance and suggest that funds are better
spent on mitigating zoonotic diseases after their emergence.
Several agencies are responsible for regulating wildlife and
wildlife products imported into the United States. The
International Collaboration. Given the global effect of
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
zoonotic diseases and criticism of WHO’s handling of past
regulates importation of animals and animal products to
zoonotic diseases by some observers, some policymakers
prevent the spread of zoonoses. Customs and Border
contend that the United States should strengthen
Protection (CBP) maintains the primary authority to inspect
intergovernmental responses and advocate for an
goods imported into the United States and vessels carrying
international convention that addresses emerging zoonotic
goods into U.S. ports of entry. Declared wildlife goods may
diseases. A convention may improve monitoring, research,
be referred to FWS, which has the authority to inspect any
and coordinated responses significantly more than existing
wildlife shipments. Through memoranda, each agency may
efforts by the OIE and GLEWS+. This might prevent delays
act upon findings within another agency’s authority.
in detection and communication among countries, which
many argue is important in preventing pandemics. Entry
International Role
into force for the United States may require Congress to
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered
ratify and approve implementing legislation for the
Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is a multilateral
convention. Some policymakers may oppose U.S.
treaty that entered into force in 1975and regulates the
participation in such a convention if it is not ratified by
international trade in animals and plants that may be
most countries and lacks enforcement mechanisms.
endangered by trade. It has been ratified by 183 nations,
including the United States and China. CITES establishes
Wildlife Trade and Trafficking. Some stakeholders
incrementally stringent restrictions on wildlife trade,
contend that Congress should provide greater resources to
reflecting its sustainability. Some species associated with
reduce wildlife trafficking and monitor wildlife imports into
zoonoses and wildlife trafficking are listed under CITES,
the United States. Bills in the 116th Congress aim to
including pangolins. Some international law enforcement
increase FWS officers in foreign countries, and increase
organizations that support anti-trafficking operations and
penalties for trafficking and rewards for whistleblowers.
criminal justice systems include INTERPOL, the
Congress may consider increasing funding for initiatives
International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime,
that address emerging zoonoses in wildlife, such as EPTP,
and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
and inspections of wildlife imports which may prevent the
entry of zoonotic diseases into the United States.
Addressing Zoonoses and Wildlife Trade
Although infectious disease outbreaks and wildlife trade are
Some contend that the United States should incentivize
largely addressed by different entities, some organizations
bans on wildlife markets, in part to reduce opportunities for
seek to address both issues by working to monitor and
transmission to humans. In their view, Congress could call
reduce human infection. The CDC employs a One Health
for international organizations such as CITES and WHO to
paradigm in this work, focusing on connections between
promote this position. Some countries appear to have taken
people, animals, and the environment. The CDC
similar steps in response to COVID-19: China has instituted
collaborates with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on
a ban on wildlife trade for food and Vietnam is reportedly
livestock and poultry health, with the Department of the
considering a ban on wildlife markets. Some policymakers,
Interior on monitoring wildlife hosts and zoonotic
however, argue that limits on the wildlife trade risk pushing
pathogens, and with international entities to study and
the trade into the black market or online where oversight is
monitor emerging zoonotic diseases. USAID specifically
difficult. They contend that increased monitoring and
addresses zoonotic diseases within its Emerging Pandemic
sanitation of markets, paired with efforts to decrease
Threats Program (EPTP), which aims to improve global
demand for wildlife products may be more sustainable.
capacity to detect zoonoses with pandemic potential.

Wildlife Trade, COVID-19, and Other Zoonotic Diseases

Katarina C. O'Regan, Analyst in Foreign Policy
Pervaze A. Sheikh, Specialist in Natural Resources Policy

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