The National Wildlife Federation and its fight against zoonotic diseases

As the United States is still reeling from the first wave of COVID-19, the U.S. Congress and wildlife groups are trying to figure out ways to have a better response for the future. 

The word of the day was “zoonotic” July 22 when the U.S. Senate held a hearing titled, “Stopping the Spread: Examining the Increased Risk of Zoonotic Disease from Illegal Wildlife Trafficking.” While that meeting was helpful, helping those who followed the hearing understand what a zoonotic disease is and how COVID-19 – a zoonotic disease itself– spread, it’s clear that the United States needs to bolster its methods of detecting a potential outbreak and pandemic, as well as fund research into discovering new diseases. 

“COVID-19 has raised awareness of the risk of wildlife diseases internationally and in the U.S, and brought up a lot of things that people may not have been aware of including that diseases are passed from animals to humans regularly,” said Director of Wildlife, Hunting and Fishing Policy with the National Wildlife Federation Mike Leahy said. “Diseases passed from animals to humans are responsible for more than half of infectious diseases in humans. It’s not a rare occurrence. Congress, fortunately, is taking it seriously, and we have seen a strong interest in responding from the House and the Senate and democrats and republicans which is great.”

Something the EPW committee, Leahy and NWF President Collin O’Mara agree on is that we have to bolster both our domestic and international responses to wildlife disease. 

Internationally, Environment and Public Works Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-Del.) noted in his opening statement at the July 22 hearing that “We can also step up our efforts to support law enforcement in other countries and help those countries build capacity to combat wildlife trafficking.”

“The United States can lead by example in this regard by working with other countries to reduce demand like we have done successfully in the past on highly trafficked parts such as ivory,” Carper said. “Moreover, it’s worth noting that some of the international wildlife trade that could contribute to the emergence of future pandemics is legal. And when it comes to legal wildlife trade, the United States is a top importer of live animals. Much of this global trade is economically important, sustainable, and poses little risk to human health, but perhaps not all of it is. We may need to make difficult decisions and fundamentally change some of the ways in which we interact with wildlife right here in the United States and around the world.” 

In an Op-Ed in The Hill, O’Mara stated that Congress should invest in U.S. Agency for International Development programs to “monitor potential zoonotic diseases abroad.” This is something that Leahy echoed. 

“[The programs] can certainly have an effect,” Leahy said. “I don’t know that they’ll be successful at least in the short-term in eliminating live wildlife markets, but through diplomacy and other programs, they can certainly make an impact. The predict program is a USAID program focused on detecting and discovering viruses with the potential to be a pandemic, so we’re hoping for increased funding for that. And then increased focus at the diplomatic level to shut down markets dealing with live animals and creating a high risk. There’s a lot they can do. 

“It’s not an easy solution, and the reality is there’s a lot of people and communities that rely on wildlife markets for their livelihood and food. It’s more about making sure those markets are sustainable, not dealing with live animals and managed in ways that they’re not creating a risk of disease and transmission to humans.”

The U.S. and Chronic Wasting Disease

On the domestic level, there is also a need for funding to monitor wildlife and restore habitat that in turn will improve the health of different species, but Leahy notes one particular disease is a high-priority target: Chronic Wasting Disease. 

Chronic Wasting Disease ravages cervid populations, such as deer, elk and moose. A transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, CWD is always fatal if an animal lives long enough to die from the disease. A neurological disease, it ravages the brains of those infected and is spread through prions that cervids pick up from contact with other animals or their feces, urine or saliva. Although there is a lot of research surrounding CWD, it is not known for sure whether or not it can be passed to humans. While research shows that it can be passed to lower primates who eat infected meat, no cases have been reported in humans. Talk to most venison connoisseur, and it’s likely at some point some will raise some concern about “that one time I ate venison out of a CWD-positive area.” 

READ: Is CWD close to us?

Leahy and the NWF know this is a concern for not just hunters but medical professionals as well. That’s why they are trying to get more attention from Congress about it, and so far they’re getting good responses. 

“One of the National Wildlife Federation’s priorities is to have Congress address the domestic wildlife disease response – increasing our domestic capacity to monitor, research and respond to wildlife diseases in the U.S., one’s that are already here and that arrive here from somewhere else,” Leahy said. “That’s where we talk about plugging gaps, strengthening and modernizing the Lacey Act to prevent the transport of injurious species state-to-state and have an emergency response to injurious species that have a risk to cause zoonotic disease that could transfer to people. 

“Then there are specific diseases that we think warrant specific attention, chief among them, Chronic Wasting Disease. So we are calling on Congress to include in their overall response to wildlife diseases, a comprehensive Chronic Wasting Disease response, which includes some really good bills in Congress.” 

According to Leahy, there are three bills in Congress right now that can benefit research and wildlife disease prevention and response: Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, America’s Conservation Enhancement Act and the Chronic Wasting Disease Management Act. 

RAWA, a piece of legislation mostly aimed at bolstering wildlife species recovery as part of each state’s Wildlife Action Plans, also allows funding to go toward addressing the threat of disease. 

“States are at the front of the domestic response to wildlife disease and I suspect every state or states generally have wildlife disease response programs,” Leahy said. “There are a couple of regional wildlife disease cooperatives in the northeast and southeast where the state and federal agencies and academia all work collaboratively to surveil, monitor and coordinate responses to wildlife diseases. We’re hoping to create a couple more of those, so RAWA funding could be used for [all] those programs. By addressing wildlife diseases generally, you’re addressing zoonotic diseases and you’re creating healthier habitats and wildlife populations that reduce the risk not just to wildlife but also to people.” 

The Chronic Wasting Disease Management Act is just that, a piece of legislation that would provide funding to state agencies and Native American tribes to respond to CWD outbreaks and would give them an emergency response bond for applied research into the best strategies for fighting the disease. Finally, the ACEA would create a task force within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to research CWD. There are other pieces of legislation in the works that the NWF is working to get through as well. 

“CWD is an important element of all of this and we think it deserves some specific attention and funding because of its seriousness on many levels,” Leahy said. “It threatens the whole funding structure for wildlife management in the U.S. A lot of that comes from licenses and excise taxes that are related to hunting deer and elk. If that declines or people are no longer comfortable hunting deer or elk, that will hurt.”

In a time like we’re seeing now, one important question to ask is will this get passed with a President whose actions sideline the Centers for Disease Control and show opposition to agencies like the World Health Organization? Leahy couldn’t answer that, but he believes even despite President Donald Trump’s actions, heavy bipartisan support in Congress could render his opinions moot. 

“I like to think that when we have bipartisan solutions, and with broad interest from a wide spectrum of the wildlife community in increasing our ability to respond to wildlife diseases that it will get support throughout the political structure,” he said. “We have emergency authorities for diseases in humans and domesticated livestock, but we don’t have any comparable authority for emerging wildlife diseases. That’s the gap we’re trying to plug with authorities and funding. We haven’t gotten any specific resistance, so I’m optimistic that with Congress looking into this and taking it seriously we’ll end up with some good programs, policies and funding.” 

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