In January 2021, just over a year after the initial confirmation of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums issued a press release formally announcing a new initiative called Reduce the Risk: A Crisis in Human and Animal Health. Reduce the Risk focuses on mitigating the risks of future zoonotic diseases events, which can negatively impact the health of both human and animal populations.
Today, experts estimate that roughly 70 percent of pandemics and emerging diseases are zoonotic in naturei -- that is, they have the potential to be transmitted between humans and animals.
Reduce the Risk was created with four key strategic pillars to address this looming threat: strengthening wildlife trade policies at the (1) national and (2) global levels; (3) increasing support for AZA’s programs working in this space, such as the Wildlife Trafficking Alliance and the Zoo and Aquarium All Hazards Partnership; and (4) increasing public support and action on this topic.
While the phrase “zoonotic disease” has long been part of the vocabulary of epidemiologists and animal care professionals, in late 2019 it entered the public lexicon in a big way with the emergence of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Though early reports speculated that the virus originated in a pangolin, today experts believe that the actual reservoir is a species of horseshoe bat of the family Rhinolophidae ii. It’s likely that zoonotic transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from an animal to a human host or hosts first occurred at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market—a wet market selling live wildlifeiii. The subsequent global spread of COVID-19 revealed just how unprepared the world had been to handle zoonotic pathogens of pandemic-level proportions and exposed a dire need to rethink and regulate the wildlife trade, thus paving the way for Reduce the Risk.
When COVID hit, there was so much more motivation to understand how the wildlife trade is linked to potentially pandemic-causing pathogens and human health,” said Dr. Sharon L. Deem, director of the Saint Louis Institute for Conservation Medicine at the Saint Louis Zoo in Saint Louis, Mo. The Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Medicine is a Department dedicated to taking a holistic approach to conservation and public health by embracing One Health, a multidisciplinary approach which emphasizes the connection between human, animal, and environmental health. “COVID-19, we often say, was a wakeup call … it really has made people understand how interconnected and dependent human health is on the health of other species as well as the environment.”
[Related story: Preventing Pandemics]
At the Saint Louis Zoo, Dr. Deem and her team are working harder than ever to get that message out to the public and to provide a One Health-focused perspective to Reduce the Risk. “When we started the Institute for Conservation Medicine eleven years ago, we didn’t talk a lot about zoonotic pathogens, and I think that’s probably true of a lot of zoos and aquariums. People didn’t want to be thinking about these things … but now, audiences are so much more receptive and interested in spillover events and how to protect their health in this very complex world.”
To capitalize on this newfound public interest, Saint Louis Zoo has co-led an undergraduate course in One Health at Washington University in St. Louis, hosted One Health-focused webinars, and organized annual One Health Fairs, where veterinary, medical, and ecology students come together to educate Zoo visitors on topics such as water quality and sustainable palm oil using a One Health lens.
“It’s very impactful for our members, but also for the next generation of One Health practitioners,” said Deem. “AZA, as a community, is a powerful voice for animal health and conservation, but we’re not just a voice—we’re action-focused.”
It’s a sentiment that John Calvelli, executive vice president of public affairs at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, N.Y., shares.
“As is always the case with AZA, our greatest strength is in our numbers and our ability to educate and inspire. We need to be using our platforms to educate the public about the crisis, but also about the solutions,” said Calvelli. “But I also think we need to go beyond education and inspiration and turn to action to make sure our public officials are aware of the work that we’re doing.”
As a key supporter of Reduce the Risk, advocacy is the name of the game for WCS. Calvelli takes pride in WCS’s efforts to directly engage the public on pandemic and One Health-focused legislation, encouraging members via their website to lobby Congress to pass bills like the Preventing Future Pandemics Act. Calvelli also chairs AZA’s Government Affairs Committee, where one of this year’s main objectives has been seeking new ways to engage the public and Congress in discussions on wildlife trade policy. In just a few months, the Committee has succeeded in growing the Congressional Zoo and Aquarium Caucus from 15 to more than 80 members, and hopes to see that number rise above 100 by the end of the year.
“The caucus is the platform for us to discuss issues of concern, like Reduce the Risk,” said Calvelli.
Reduce the Risk’s efforts are not confined to AZA and member facilities; AZA has partnered with international organizations like the Global Initiative to End Wildlife Crime (EWC), Preventing Pandemics at the Source, and the Coalition to End the Trade.
“Anything that AZA is doing on the international policy scale, we’re not doing alone,” said Sara Walker, senior advisor on wildlife trafficking for the Wildlife Trafficking Alliance, an AZA program.
The link between zoonotic spillover and the wildlife trade—both legal and illegal—is well-documented.
“While zoonotic spillover can take place whether trade is legal or illegal, illegal trade does exacerbate the potential for zoonotic disease spread, simply because of the nature in which animals are kept. It’s a black-market trade; it’s circumventing quarantine protocols and transport laws, so you’re going to have an increased number of zoonotic incidents,” said Walker.
For EWC, their approach accomplishes two goals: by working to combat wildlife trafficking, they are also helping to reduce the potential for zoonotic disease events. EWC began in Hong Kong as a group of people united in their desire to address the gaps in the global legal framework for regulating the wildlife trade.
“At the moment, there is no international, legally-binding agreement to address wildlife trafficking, like there is for human trafficking or firearms smuggling,” said John Scanlon, current chair of EWC. “I think AZA and EWC have been like-minded from the outset … the current policies in place are inadequate if we are going to prevent future pandemics.”
EWC supports a highly targeted approach when it comes to crafting an instrument to regulate wildlife trade and reduce zoonotic spillover potential.
“To ban international trade of all wild animals is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut,” said Scanlon, emphasizing the unintended consequences that could arise by taking an overly simplistic approach to the issue. Instead, the coalition has worked with the non-profit Species360 to determine which taxa pose the greatest risk to human and animal health. Today, EWC focuses its efforts on regulating the trade of the biggest offenders—live mammals and birds collected from the wild—which were found to be the most likely to carry pathogens of zoonotic potential.
“It’s critically important that those of us who have been fortunate enough to work in this space—and have some insight into issues in wildlife trafficking, wildlife trade, and wildlife markets—use the experience and expertise we have to push for institutional change,” said Scanlon. “I think it’s a moral obligation on our part.”
The primary goal of Preventing Pandemics at the Source (PPATS) is to ensure that future pandemic preparedness efforts and funds are geared towards the organization’s namesake—prevention at the source, which frequently is a spillover event that occurs as a result of wildlife trade or consumption.
[Related story: Putting a Stop to Wildlife Trafficking]
Dr. Nigel Sizer, co-founder and executive director of PPATS, said that in the earliest days of the organization, there was very little discussion about disease prevention at the source (also called “upstream prevention” or “primary prevention”), which is a much more effective strategy than containment.
“Nearly all the conversations between governments about future pandemics have focused on how to accelerate vaccine development and production, how to get vaccines to people, things like that. All of that is important, but people weren’t thinking about how the best solution is to stop the spillover before it even starts.”
Today, PPATS is working in concert with AZA and its partners to advance the goals of Reduce the Risk, largely by engaging in global policy discussions. They’re currently contributing to ongoing proceedings to develop an international treaty or instrument of pandemic prevention and preparedness under the World Health Organization (WHO). Sizer hopes that new regulations on wildlife markets and the wildlife trade borne out of COVID-19 are here to stay. “We are seeing changes. I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re going to see a more comprehensive, more holistic approach emerging here.”
The public’s zoonotic disease fatigue after two years dominated by COVID-19 is to be expected, said Walker, but she also emphasizes the significance of keeping these issues top of mind as we continue to advance initiatives like Reduce the Risk.
“It’s very important to strike while the iron is hot. We have to move,” said Scanlon. “We have to make institutional changes that will stand the test of time, and we have to do it while this is fresh in everybody’s minds.”
Dr. Nigel Sizer reflects on the bigger picture for this initiative. “For me, reducing the risk means reducing the chances that we all have to go through another pandemic. Right now, the chances are pretty high that in our lives, something like this could happen again and it could be a lot worse. That’s what the science says. Anything we can do to reduce the risk of this happening again, even if it’s only by five or ten percent, is worth it.”
Haley Randall is a writer based in Silver Spring, Md.
[i] Maurizio F, Lloyd-Evans, M (2021) The contribution of veterinary public health to the management of the COVID-19 pandemic from a One Health perspective. One Health. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.onehlt.2021.100230.
[ii] He S, Han J, Lichtfouse E. Backward transmission of COVID-19 from humans to animals may propagate reinfections and induce vaccine failure. Environ Chem Lett. 2021;19(2):763-768. doi: 10.1007/s10311-020-01140-4. Epub 2021 Jan 3. PMID: 33424524; PMCID: PMC7779092.
[iii] Maxmen A (2022). Wuhan market was epicentre of pandemic’s start, studies suggest. Nature.