Updated February 19, 2021
Wildlife Trade, COVID-19, and Other Zoonotic Diseases
Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) and
Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) is caused by a
Ebola Virus. Scientists assert that these viruses likely
novel virus: the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome
originated from wildlife, such as bats, and were transmitted
Coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2). In March 2020, the World
to humans via intermediary hosts, such as civets, camels,
Health Organization (WHO) characterized it as a pandemic
and apes. Humans may have contracted these diseases, in
that reportedly had spread to more than 223 countries or
part, through the wildlife trade, according to scientists.
territories. The origin of the COVID-19 outbreak is not
certain, though several studies have identified high genetic
Zoonoses Associated with Wildlife Trade
similarity between SARS-CoV-2 and coronaviruses found
in bat species found in China. WHO scientists hypothesize
The virus is identified in bats and
that SARS-CoV-2 possibly transmitted to humans directly
other species, including mink and pangolins (i.e., scaly
from bats or through an intermediate species or perishable
anteater). An intermediate host species that might be in the
wildlife product associated with a wet market (market that
wildlife trade may have transmitted the virus to humans.
sell live animals and perishable goods) in China.
Scientists identified the virus in
horseshoe bats, civets, and other animals sold in wildlife
SARS-CoV-2, like most coronaviruses, is zoonotic,
markets in China. Civets are thought to have transmitted the
meaning it is derived from viruses, bacteria, and other
virus to humans.
pathogens that are transmitted between animals and
2014-2016 and 2018-2020—Ebola Virus:
Ebola in humans
humans. Transmission of zoonotic diseases (i.e., zoonoses
can be traced to the handling and consumption of infected
is reportedly facilitated by activities such as land clearing,
wildlife carcasses, especial y apes. Bushmeat (meat from wild
close human-animal contact (e.g., in live animal markets),
African animals) trade is linked to Ebola.
hunting and consuming wild animals, and the wildlife trade.
SARS-CoV-2 is one of several zoonotic viruses that are
2004-2014—Simian Foamy Virus and Herpesvirus:
likely linked to this trade, which brings humans and wild
Il egal bushmeat entering the United States showed evidence
animals in close proximity. The trade increases the risk of
of zoonotic retroviruses that could transfer to humans.
virus transmission between hosts that might not otherwise
interact in nature, leading some scientists to contend that
Wildlife Trade and Trafficking
wildlife trade can exacerbate the spread of zoonoses.
Trade in wildlife, both legal and illegal, forms a vast
economy and has contributed to outbreaks of some zoonotic
COVID-19’s health and economic toll may increase
diseases. Legal and illegal wildlife trade can range from
congressional interest in the relationship between wildlife
trade and zoonotic diseases. Options for congressional
small-scale local bartering to formal commercial-sized
national and international markets facilitated by organized
action may include legislation and funding of programs to
criminal groups. Demand for products, such as traditional
address zoonotic diseases at their source, increase
medicines, pets, food, and decorations, often exceed legal
surveillance of emerging zoonotic diseases, increase
oversight of the legal wildlife trade, and increase measures
supply, contributing to the illegal trade. Such demand is
notably high in East Asia, where rising economic affluence
to reduce the illegal wildlife trade.
has increased demand for products such as rhino horns and
Zoonotic Diseases and EIDs
pangolin meat and scales. The illegal wildlife trade, also
Most emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) originate in
known as wildlife trafficking
, is estimated to generate from
animals and involve interactions between wildlife,
$7 billion to more than $20 billion annually.
livestock, and people. Changing land-use practices (e.g.,
Legal but poorly regulated trade in wildlife and human
land cleared for development) play an increasingly
important role in animal-to-human disease transmission.
contact with wild animals can increase human exposure to
zoonotic diseases. Some studies suggest that wet wildlife
Scientists estimate that approximately 60% of EIDs are
markets, which often comprise animals in tightly packed
zoonotic and that approximately 72% originate from
spaces, are potential locations for zoonotic disease
wildlife. Some scientists have identified tropical forests in
Southeast Asia, Africa, and areas where land-use practices
transmission. Some scientists assert that humans who
frequent open wildlife markets may increase their risk of
are altering native ecosystems as hotspots for future
contracting zoonotic diseases because of their exposure to
emerging zoonotic diseases.
wild animals. In addition, the markets bring together
Since 2000, several high-profile zoonotic disease outbreaks
animals that may carry diseases from different ecosystems
into one location, facilitating the spread of disease in a way
have affected humans, such as Severe Acute Respiratory
that may not typically happen in nature. Several entities
Syndrome Coronavirus (SARS-CoV), Middle East
address the legal and illegal wildlife trade.
Wildlife Trade, COVID-19, and Other Zoonotic Diseases
Early Warning System (GLEWS+), which aims to share
U.S. agencies that address wildlife trafficking include the
data and improve risk assessments related to zoonoses.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), U.S. Department of
State (State), and the U.S. Agency for International
Issues for Congress
Development (USAID). FWS has domestic and
Funding and oversight approaches are available to Congress
international law enforcement and investigative
to address zoonoses and wildlife trade.
responsibilities related to wildlife trafficking and
Land Use Change and Development.
Factors such as
collaborates with foreign law enforcement entities such as
land-use change and deforestation may increase overlap of
the International Criminal Police Organization
(INTERPOL). State and USAID lead intergovernmental
wildlife and humans, enhancing zoonotic disease
and public diplomacy initiatives related to wildlife
transmission. Some stakeholders recommend increasing
trafficking, including contributions to international and
U.S. foreign assistance to reduce or mitigate land-use
nongovernmental organizations and bilateral foreign
change in zoonotic disease hotspots. Others may question
assistance for 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
Given the global effect of
wildlife products imported into the United States. The
zoonotic diseases and some observers’ criticism of WHO’s
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
handling of past zoonotic diseases, some policymakers
regulates importation of animals and animal products to
contend that the United States should strengthen
prevent the spread of zoonoses. Customs and Border
intergovernmental responses and advocate for an
Protection maintains the primary authority to inspect goods
imported into the United States and vessels carrying goods
international convention that addresses emerging zoonotic
into U.S. ports of entry. Declared wildlife goods may be
diseases. A new convention may improve monitoring,
referred to FWS, which has the authority to inspect any
research, and coordinated responses 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
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 1975 and 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. Some
endangered by trade. It has been ratified by 183 nations,
suggest amending CITES to regulate wildlife trade based on
including the United States and China. CITES establishes
threat of zoonotic disease transmission.
incrementally stringent restrictions on wildlife trade,
reflecting its sustainability. Some species associated with
Wildlife Trade and Trafficking.
zoonoses and wildlife trafficking are listed under CITES,
contend that Congress should provide greater resources to
including pangolins. Some international law enforcement
reduce wildlife trafficking and monitor wildlife imports into
organizations that support anti-trafficking operations and
the United States. A bill in the 117th Congress aims to
criminal justice systems include INTERPOL, the
increase international cooperation to address zoonotic
International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime,
diseases, regulate wildlife markets, and prohibit the trade of
and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
wild animals for consumption. Congress may consider
increasing funding for initiatives that address emerging
Addressing Zoonoses and Wildlife Trade
zoonoses in wildlife, such as EPTP, and inspections of
Although different entities largely address disease
wildlife imports, which may prevent the entry of zoonotic
outbreaks and wildlife trade, some organizations seek to
diseases into the United States.
address both issues. The CDC employs a One Health
paradigm in this work, focusing on connections between
Some contend that the United States should incentivize
people, animals, and the environment. The CDC
bans on wildlife markets, in part to reduce opportunities for
collaborates with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on
transmission to humans. In their view, Congress could call
livestock and poultry health, with the Department of the
for international organizations, such as CITES and WHO,
Interior on monitoring wildlife hosts and zoonotic
to promote this position. Some countries appear to have
pathogens, and with international entities to study and
taken similar steps in response to COVID-19: China has
monitor emerging zoonotic diseases. USAID addresses
instituted a ban on wildlife trade for food, and Vietnam has
zoonotic diseases within its Emerging Pandemic Threats
restricted some wildlife markets. Some policymakers,
Program (EPTP), which aims to improve global capacity to
however, argue that limits on the wildlife trade risk pushing
detect zoonoses with pandemic potential.
the trade into the black market or online, where oversight is
difficult. They contend that increased monitoring and
Internationally, the World Organization for Animal Health
sanitation of markets, paired with efforts to decrease
(OIE) analyzes and disseminates information related to
demand for wildlife products, may be more sustainable.
animal disease control. Jointly with WHO and the Food and
Agriculture Organization, the OIE operates the Global
Pervaze A. Sheikh
, Specialist in Natural Resources Policy Katarina C. O'Regan
, Analyst in Foreign Policy
Wildlife Trade, COVID-19, and Other Zoonotic Diseases
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