A new report published by New York University in 2023, discovered that most animal industries in the US are substantially less regulated than they should be, and far less standardised than the public believes. Consequently, dangerous zoonoses can be transferred from animals to humans freely. Our understanding of the severity of zoonotic disease spread was amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic, which likely originated from human exposure to infected wildlife, and resulted in the death of over one million Americans – and nearly seven million people worldwide. Here, we summarise why we must still be concerned with the risk of a future, and potentially more serious, pandemic occurring through unsafe and unregulated interactions with wild animals as part of the industries that keep and produce them as commodities.
The media attention surrounding the spread of COVID-19 from minks on fur farms to humans has sparked more urgent attention on the issue of zoonoses – infectious diseases that can be spread from animals to humans – in the last few years. These concerns have more recently been extended to other animal industries that pose the same, or potentially greater, risks to human public health and safety.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 75% of emerging infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic. In addition to fur farms, some of the other animal industries posing pertinent and widespread risks to humans include the exotic pet trade, pet stores, hunting, trapping, zoos, aquariums, animals in research, industrial animal agriculture, and big game farming.
The Lessons Learned from the COVID-19 Pandemic
In 2020, the rapid spread of COVID-19 infections at mink farms across Europe and throughout North America resulted in the premature killing of millions of minks around the world, as it became apparent that variants of coronavirus had mutated separately within mink farms in Europe and the US and appeared in people who had no direct connection to mink farming. In Denmark alone, 17 million minks from more than 200 fur farms were killed in 2020 in attempts to stop the rapid virus spread. In response, several European countries took steps to permanently or temporarily ban fur farms to prevent a future and more serious pandemic from occurring.
More recently, and concerningly, the presence of H5N1, or avian influenza, has been confirmed on a fur farm in Finland, bringing the current total to 27 farms at which this virus has emerged. In May 2023, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a statement on H5N1, asserting that: “Given the widespread circulation in birds and the constantly evolving nature of influenza viruses, WHO stresses the importance of global surveillance to detect virological, epidemiological, and clinical changes associated with circulating influenza viruses which may affect human (or animal) health.”
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While avian influenza viruses do not replicate well in humans, an intermediate species, like mink, provides an opportune host environment for H5N1 to circulate, adapt, and potentially become transmitted through the airborne route, making it far more transmissible and difficult to contain. The virus does not adapt the same way in poultry, as mink are thought to have respiratory tracts more similar to humans.
A new report, “Animal Markets and Zoonotic Disease” published by the New York University (NYU) in 2023, summarises the similar serious future pandemic risks associated with 36 different animal industries including fur farms, which use animals of wild, agricultural, or otherwise human-produced origins, in which close and unsafe human-animal interactions occur routinely, thus increasing the risk of zoonotic disease spread.
The Exotic Pet Trade Is an Especially Dangerous Avenue for Potential Disease Spread
The sheer volume of animal use and production in the US makes it a uniquely vulnerable location for a future pandemic to arise. For example, the country is the largest importer of live wildlife in the world, importing more than 220 million wild animals in one year, many without undergoing any health checks or disease testing prior to entry.
NYU researchers found that the US exotic pet trade, valued at US$15 billion annually, is a major vector through which high-risk human-animal interactions can be potential opportunities for zoonotic disease transmission. By some estimates, there are as many exotic pets in the US as there are cats and dogs. Approximately 14% of American households own one or more exotic animals and up to 50% of all pets in the US are exotic animals from a wide range of species, including primates, birds, reptiles, and fish. Alarmingly, from just primates alone, humans can contract up to 200 known diseases, many of which can be fatal. We do not yet know of the impact future transferable diseases may have on human health.
Further, the study indicated that animals in the exotic pet trade, through both legal and illegal avenues, are often sold to owners without any disease testing or veterinary oversight. Despite this overt lack of regulation and failure to prioritise human public health and safety, estimates suggest these non-native wild animals captively bred in the US altogether number in the tens of millions. Some exotic animal dealers keep more than 25,000 wild animals together at a single facility, often in poor and tightly-packed conditions that facilitate disease spread, before being distributed to customers across the country. It is known that tight confinement of highly stressed animals, who often have weaker immune systems to begin with, provides an optimal environment for potential zoonotic spillover.
For example, during a major mpox (previously referred to as “monkeypox”) outbreak, which originated in one of these large facilities that received a shipment of exotic animals from overseas, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agents were not able to track down a large number of infected prairie dogs that had already been sold through pet stores and swap meets. These animals potentially infected numerous humans with the virus down the length of the supply chain. Even less popular and more niche animal industries in the US pose serious risks to human health, like crocodile farms, which have facilitated the spread of West Nile Virus to humans.
Zoos Also Pose a Public Health Risk, Especially When Directly Physical Contact between Animals and People Is Allowed and Encouraged
Many zoos allow physical interactions between the animals and visitors. Disease exposure at zoos can happen at any time this contact occurs, through touching, holding, or feeding an animal, as well as by being licked, bitten, or scratched. Indirect transmission can also occur through inhaling airborne pathogens or interacting with pathogens in the animal’s food, water, or environment. Children are especially vulnerable to these exposures, as they are more likely to take fewer sanitary precautions to mitigate zoonotic risk. The suboptimal living conditions provided by zoos which can include poor nutrition, health, and housing all function to increase the chronic stress levels experienced by the animals, leading to weaker immune systems and an increased likelihood of contracting and spreading disease.
The US Has No Comprehensive Strategy in Place to Managed Zoonotic Disease Risk
Ultimately, the report comes to a troubling conclusion: the US has no comprehensive strategy to mitigate zoonotic risk. Instead, policy change is often reactive, happening only after outbreaks occur. By then, it is often too late. For many industries, the government lacks even basic data about animal facilities, has no appointed governing body for animal welfare or health inspections, no system in place to screen animals for disease or to identify zoonotic threats proactively, and does not have the staffing capability to accomplish these goals effectively for the several thousands of animal facilities in operation.
The common denominator in these practices that consistently poses increasingly devastating and potentially fatal risks to humans is wild animals being kept and produced en masse in captivity. These animals languish in cramped and unsanitary conditions that only exacerbate chances of disease spread, where their welfare is severely compromised, only to maximise financial profit. In all of these industries, animals are treated like commodities; their lives reduced to what humans can gain from the final product that results after a life lived in misery, followed by their eventual slaughter, only to begin the cycle immediately after with another.
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As we have been made aware by the alarm calls from virologists and public health officials around the world, this cycle of torment is unsustainable and dangerous for both the suffering animals and the humans driving it. To begin the process of fixing this highly flawed system, the report emphasises the importance of the world combatting future pandemic risks through a united front in global policy response.
This approach can only be accomplished by adopting the understanding that future pandemics can happen anywhere, at any time, as long as the lack of animal-related regulations continues to neglect human public health and safety measures. For the average animal activist, removing monetary support from any mass animal industry, including zoos, aquariums, and pet stores, or even symbolic support from social media platforms online that encourage exotic animal ownership and interactions, can help bring us closer to a future where animals are no longer monetized for human consumption at the risk of our own health.
As the report states, “For many Americans, concepts such as “bushmeat” or “wildlife farming” seem foreign, but they refer to practices that are common within the US as well, differentiated only by the language we use to describe them.”
It is often easy to turn a blind eye to something typically perceived as out of sight, but far more difficult to do so when the next pandemic is staring us right in the face.
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