U.S. Unprepared For Dangers Posed By Zoonotic Diseases, New Analysis Concludes

Feb 22, 2023

The United States, the largest importer of wildlife in the world, is not prepared for future spread of animal-borne, or zoonotic, diseases due to gaps among governmental agencies designed to combat these threats, concludes a new analysis by researchers at Harvard Law School and New York University. The authors call for a “One Health” approach, integrating multiple agencies in order to better govern human-animal interactions.

The editorial, “Blind spots in biodefense,” which appears in the journal Science, is authored by Ann Linder, a research fellow at Harvard Law School’s Brooks McCormick Jr. Animal Law & Policy Program, and Dale Jamieson, a professor at New York University’s Center for Environmental and Animal Protection in the Department of Environmental Studies.

Linder and Jamieson note that the Biden administration’s recent release of its National Biodefense Strategy (NBS-22), the first update since the COVID-19 pandemic began, frames threats as largely external to the United States. 

“NBS-22 focuses primarily on bioterrorism and laboratory accidents, neglecting threats posed by routine practices of animal use and production inside the United States,” they write. 

This oversight is significant, Linder and Jamieson observe, given the United States’ past and present when it comes to human-animal interface:

  • More zoonotic diseases originated in the United States than in any other country during the second half of the 20th century. 
  • In 2022, the U.S. processed more than 10 billion livestock, the largest number ever recorded and an increase of 204 million over 2021.
  • The ongoing H5N1 avian influenza outbreak has left 58 million animals dead in backyard chicken coops and industrial farms in the U.S.
  • Since 2011, the U.S. has recorded more swine-origin influenza infections than any other country. Most occurred at state and county fairs, which attract 150 million visitors each year and where an estimated 18% of swine have tested positive. 

Moreover, they add, the current patchwork of siloed agencies and authorities is marked by a lack of coordination, leaving significant gaps and areas of underregulation. In fact, of the many agencies that govern food animal production, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is the most important, but it has no authority to regulate on-farm animal production.

The authors call for rebuilding from the ground up the U.S. regulatory system in order to combat zoonotic disease risk.

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