China out of UN's wildlife survey for pandemic controls

The goal of the UN project is to boost pandemic prevention and preparedness

April 13, 2023 02:27 pm | Updated 02:27 pm IST

Thailand’s oldest hippopotamus “Mae Mali” eats fruit during her 55th birthday party at Khao Kheow zoo in Chon Buri, Thailand September 8, 2020.

Thailand’s oldest hippopotamus “Mae Mali” eats fruit during her 55th birthday party at Khao Kheow zoo in Chon Buri, Thailand September 8, 2020. | Photo Credit: Reuters

China is not participating in a United Nations project to survey Asian wet markets and other facilities at high risk of spreading infectious diseases from wild animals to humans, despite long-running talks with Beijing, a UN official told Reuters.

China's hesitancy to join the UN project involving other Asian nations may compound frustration by global researchers who have been pressing Beijing to share information about the origins of COVID-19, as they seek to prevent future pandemics due to zoonotic, or animal-to-human, disease transmission.

Four Asian countries - China, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos - were initially selected for the survey by the scientific advisory committee of the project, called the Safety across Asia For the global Environment (SAFE), because they host multiple facilities presenting risks of animal-to-human disease transmission, the UN official said.

The selection for the project, launched in July 2021, was also made after major wildlife trafficking cases were detected, investigated and prosecuted in those countries, which increased zoonotic risks, the official said.

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"China was initially in discussions to be part of the project," the official said, declining to be named as the information was deemed sensitive.

The official said discussions with China are still ongoing, but did not clarify with which state institution the UN project is holding talks.

China's foreign ministry and the country's National Forestry and Grasslands Administration (NFGA), which oversees the management of wildlife and was involved in initial talks with the project organisers, did not respond to requests for comment.

The official said NFGA initially showed interest in the project but eventually declined to join, saying it was not under its remit. The agency did not indicate which government agencies would be responsible for the matter, the official said.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which monitors illegal wildlife trafficking and coordinates the SAFE project, had no immediate comment.

After a strain of coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 disease was first identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019, many researchers suspected it spread in a live animal market there.

China has since banned the sale and consumption for food of wildlife animals. Despite the ban, experts warn risks still remain.

"There are glaring holes in the restrictions that still pose a zoonotic disease risk," said Peter Li, China Policy Specialist for Humane Society International, a Washington-based non-profit organization.

He said China still allows wildlife breeding on a massive scale for fur trade, traditional medicine, pet trade and for entertainment or display in low welfare conditions.

China's public security organs have handled more than 70,000 criminal cases involving wild animals from 2020-2022, confiscating 1.37 million wild animals in the process, state news agency Xinhua has reported.

The country's revised wildlife law, designed to close regulatory loopholes, is due to take effect in May, according to the National People's Congress website.

Slow start

The SAFE project surveys only began in October last year, when the project's assessors visited Khao Kheow zoo and a cafe in Thailand. Another dozen surveys have been conducted in the country since then.

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The goal is to boost pandemic prevention and preparedness, the official said, noting the results of the surveys would be solely shared with the participating governments.

After China effectively dropped out from initial talks, it was replaced with the Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo island, according to the list of participating countries posted on the official website of the project.

About 40 facilities in each participating country are to be surveyed to identify potential risks of disease transmission.

The facilities to be surveyed include restaurants, wet markets, biomedical supply facilities, zoos and breeding facilities. The wet markets targeted are markets where wild animals are sold alongside fresh meat and vegetables.

Vietnam and Laos have yet to approve the surveys. The UN official expected the formal greenlight from the two countries over the coming weeks or months. Malaysia's Sabah has authorised the field visits.

A second UN official, from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) which implements the project, said practices that can increase disease transmission risks include lack of hygiene, mixing of different animal species and the use of overcrowded cages.

The project, which is funded by the European Union and will run until July 2024, could be expanded to involve the World Health Organization (WHO) if public health considerations are identified, the first UN official said.

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