WASHINGTON - Today, the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing “Stopping the Spread: Examining the Increased Risk of Zoonotic Disease from Illegal Wildlife Trafficking.” Below is the opening statement of Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-Del.), as prepared for delivery:

“Thank you for holding this hearing today, Mr. Chairman. While I believe it’s critically important that we examine the ways in which we can prevent future pandemics, I would be remiss if I did not begin today by acknowledging the severity of our ongoing crisis.

“I’ll put it plainly. Americans are suffering as the coronavirus continues to spread. More than 500 Delawareans have tragically lost their lives due to this disease, along with more than 140,000 other Americans. To put those numbers in context, 25 percent of all COVID19-related deaths have occurred in our country, despite the fact that Americans constitute less than 5 percent of the world’s population. Getting this deadly virus under control and providing assistance to those who need it most must remain our primary focus.

With that said, experts around the globe have acknowledged the connection between wildlife trade and the emergence of COVID-19. I appreciate the opportunity we have here today to examine and better understand that connection.

“I’ll be honest, Mr. Chairman. In the Carper household we really only talk about two things: Detroit Tigers baseball and zoonotic diseases.  And since the Tigers haven’t given us much to talk about recently, we’ve been spending a lot more time talking about zoonotic diseases.

“People may tune into our hearing and wonder, ‘what is a zoonotic disease anyway?’ They might not realize that, these days, zoonotic disease has become a matter of our everyday lives and a topic of daily conversation. Zoonotic diseases are diseases that are transmitted from animals to humans. Believe it or not, at least 61 percent of human diseases are zoonotic.

“Some well-known examples of zoonotic diseases include the West Nile virus, Lyme disease, and Rabies. Another example of a zoonotic disease is the 2019 novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19 or, simply, the coronavirus. While we still don’t know exactly how the virus made the leap from wildlife to humans, we do know that unnatural conditions in live wildlife markets in China – known as ‘wet markets’ – likely played a role.

“While tens of thousands of our own countrymen and women die from this virulent disease, it would be easy for us to simply point to the role that China and other countries play in wildlife trafficking and place blame. But the truth is that our country also plays a significant role in the global wildlife trade. For example, wet markets exist in the United States. They are not exactly like the wet markets found in Asia and elsewhere, and they’re not as prevalent, but they do exist—and they may pose a real risk to human health.

“As we consider the connections between illegal wildlife trafficking and zoonotic diseases, I hope we will not just place the blame on other countries but, rather, do what’s right by also reflecting upon our own practices here in the United States. We need to discuss how we – as a country – can better support our own state and federal efforts to combat zoonotic diseases.

“For starters, there’s a lot more we can do as a country to bolster research and to encourage coordination regarding zoonotic diseases. To that end, I look forward to hearing ideas and advice from our esteemed panel of witnesses, particularly for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is in the jurisdiction of our Committee.

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.

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.

“We know that natural, resilient ecosystems, when left to their own devices, thrive and support biodiversity. Biodiversity supports a healthier planet. But when we interfere and create unnatural conditions, the unintended consequences can sometimes be severe. For instance, wet markets increase the chance for disease transmission between species and then, ultimately, to humans.

“Climate change may also create problematic, unnatural circumstances. For example, resource scarcity driven by climate change will cause humans to interact with new animals. As such, new wildlife species will likely be traded, increasing the already-high risk for the spread of zoonotic disease. At the same time, as climate change continues to displace and disrupt both human and non-human populations, scientists expect that disease susceptibility will increase.

As we seek to prevent future pandemics caused by zoonotic disease, we’d be wise to try and minimize the forces of uncertainty. We have learned that climate change will almost certainly bring with it more uncertainty to the management of zoonotic diseases, which is one more reason why addressing climate change is critical to the prevention of future pandemics.

“When the United States addresses its shortfalls at home – in the interest of creating a more perfect union, and a better world – we send a strong signal to both friends and foes abroad when we lead by our example. And, that is precisely what I hope we will strive to do as we contemplate next steps to combat illegal wildlife trafficking and the prevention of future pandemics.

“Thank you to our witnesses for joining us today, and thank you, again, Mr. Chairman, for convening this hearing.”