Open letter to World Health Organisation

Stephen Wiggins Article 5 Comments

6th April 2020

Dear Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus [Director General, World Health Organisation] and Dr Zhang Qi [Co-ordinator of Traditional and Complementary Medicine Unit (TCM), World Health Organisation],

COVID-19: Health risks and wildlife[1] markets – the need for a permanent global ban on wildlife markets and a highly precautionary approach to wildlife trade.

The undersigned organisations acknowledge and commend the World Health Organisation’s current efforts to contain the pandemic spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

On the occasion of World Health Day, in the midst of a global pandemic believed to have originated in a live wildlife market, we call upon the WHO to publicly and unequivocally state the proven link between these markets and serious threats to human health. In line with its stated mission to serve public health at all times, we urge the WHO to recommend that governments worldwide permanently ban live wildlife markets and the use of wildlife in traditional medicine. This decisive action, well within the WHO’s mandate, would be an impactful first step in adopting a highly precautionary approach to wildlife trade that poses a risk to human health.

While a robust global response is critical in detecting, treating and reducing transmission, it is equally necessary to take vital measures to prevent similar emerging infectious diseases developing into pandemics with the associated threats to human life, and social and economic well-being.

The COVID-19 outbreak is believed to have originated at wildlife markets in China, and transmitted to humans as a result of close proximity between wildlife and people.[2] Further research suggests that bats and pangolins may have been involved in the transmission chain of the virus to people[3]. But let us stress that it was the actions of people that created the environment in which this transmission was possible.

This is not the first time that infectious diseases have been linked to wild animals in recent years. Between 2002 and 2003, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), inflicted by a coronavirus which is also believed to have emerged from wildlife markets in China, resulted in more than 8,000 human cases across 29 countries, and 774 deaths[4]. Failure to enforce permanent bans on all wildlife markets then allowed for a similar, but more severe, disease to emerge. Other significant zoonotic diseases, the transmission of which has been associated with wildlife, include Ebola, MERS, HIV, bovine tuberculosis, rabies, and leptospirosis.[5]

Zoonotic diseases are responsible for over two billion cases of human illness and over two million human deaths each year.[5] How many of these cases directly or indirectly originate from wildlife is hard to calculate, due to overlapping reservoirs in livestock and wild animal populations. However, considering the significance of wildlife as a reservoir of emerging infectious diseases, wildlife origins of zoonoses must be of primary concern. Sixty percent (60%) of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic and 70% of these are thought to originate from wildlife.[6]

The risk of zoonotic disease transmission is heightened further by the unregulated and unhygienic conditions associated with wildlife markets, where close proximity between humans and animals provide the perfect opportunity for pathogens to spread. This risk is further exacerbated by the conditions in which animals are typically farmed or collected from the wild, transported to and held at such markets, which inevitably result in large numbers of animals of different species being held in crowded conditions in close proximity, causing immense stress and weakening their immune systems. Such conditions, coupled with close proximity to people at wildlife markets, provide the ideal situation for pathogens to replicate, spread, and potentially infect people.

Pangolins, which are considered likely by some researchers to be involved in the transmission chain of COVID-19, are commonly used as ingredients for Traditional Medicine, as are many other wildlife species such as turtles, leopards, tigers, lions and bears, with bear bile injections being officially recommended as a treatment for COVID-19.[7] These animals are either farmed or poached from the wild to supply the demand – a practice that is entirely unnecessary given the viable plant or non-wildlife based alternatives recognized by Traditional Medicine. Risk of disease transmission is prevalent across all aspects of wildlife trade, which supplies products to the Traditional Medicine industry. For example, bovine tuberculosis has been documented among wild and captive-bred lions, posing a substantial risk of zoonosis to consumers and people involved in the lion bone trade, particularly those who work in breeding farms, slaughter and processing facilities in South Africa. Reptiles such as snakes and geckos, which are also used in Traditional Medicine, are frequent sources of Salmonellosis infections in people.[8]

While Traditional Medicine is a recognized medicinal system in many countries and cultures, and can play an important health role, the vast majority of ingredients are plant or mineral based, with hundreds of recognized alternatives to ingredients derived from wildlife. The trade in wildlife and parts and products derived from them for Traditional Medicine is unnecessary and indefensible, as it poses a risk to global health. Studies have highlighted that over 80% of Traditional Medicine consumers would consider herbal or synthetic alternatives to wild animal products.[9],[10] In China, academics recognized that a ban on wildlife consumption is not enough to protect public health from wildlife-associated diseases. They called on the government to support transitioning the wildlife farming industry away from the production of Traditional Medicine.[11]

Any policies and practices that sustain the wildlife trade carry a huge and unpredictable public health risk that could lead to future outbreaks and pandemics of zoonotic diseases among human populations.  

The impact of COVID-19 in terms of loss of human life, physical and mental health, the global economy, livelihoods and the quality of public life has been utterly devastating and cannot be underestimated. At the time of writing, COVID-19 has led to 1,218,114 confirmed cases and 65,841 deaths across 208 countries. According to calculations by the UN and others, the COVID-19 pandemic could cost the global economy between US$1 – 2.7 trillion and is triggering a global recession forcing states to introduce costly stimulus packages.[12],[13] The costs to the international community of fighting a global pandemic are vastly higher than the costs of preventing it in the first place, including eliminating live wildlife markets and funding the coordinated global response needed to bring an end to the wildlife trade.

In conclusion, the demand for wildlife and wildlife products is a primary cause of the emergence and spread of zoonotic diseases and a severe risk to global health. We call on the World Health Organisation to recognise that it has a significant role to play to mitigate such global health risks.

We therefore strongly urge the World Health Organisation to:

  • Recommend to governments worldwide that they institute a permanent ban on live wildlife markets, drawing an unequivocal link between these markets and their proven threats to human health.
  • Recommend to governments that they address the potential risks to human health from the trade in wildlife – including collection from the wild, ranching, farming, transport, and trade through physical or online markets for any purpose – and act to close down or limit such trade in order to mitigate those risks.
  • Unequivocally exclude the use of wildlife, including from captive bred specimens, in the WHO’s definition and endorsement of Traditional Medicine and revise [WHO’s 2014-2023 Traditional Medicine Strategy] accordingly to reflect this change.
  • Assist governments and lead a coordinated response among the World Trade Organisation, World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and other multilateral organisations worldwide in awareness-raising activities to clearly inform of the risks of wildlife trade to public health, social cohesion, economic stability, law and order, and individual health.
  • Support and encourage initiatives that deliver alternative sources of protein to subsistence consumers of wild animals, in order to further reduce the risk to human health.

We welcome your consideration of this important matter and stand ready to assist.

Yours sincerely,

For and behalf of the following 241 organisations:

AAP Animal Advocacy and Protection
Action for Elephants
Africa Network for Animal Welfare
African Pangolin Working Group
All Life In A Viable Environment
Amboseli Trust for Elephants
Ananta Jyoti Dhayn Kendra
Animal Alliance of Canada
Animal Concerns Research & Education Society
Animal Defenders International
Animal Friends Jogja
Animal Guardians
Animal Kingdom Foundation
Animal Legal Defense Fund
Animal Liberation Sanctuary
Animal People Forum
Animal Projects & Environmental Education Sdn Bhd
Animal Protection Agency
Animal Protection and Environmental Sanctuary
Animal Protection Denmark / Dyrenes Beskyttelse
Animal Protection Party of Canada
Animal Sanctuary Trust Indonesia
Animal Society for the Protection of Animals (Macau)
Animal Talk Africa
Animal Welfare And Anti Harassment Society
Animals Asia Foundation
Animals Australia
Ape Alliance
Association Daridibó
Baboon Matters
Bali Street Dog Fund Australia
Ban Animal Trading
Bat Conservation Trust
Bears in Mind
Beauty Without Cruelty – South Africa
Big Cat Rescue
Blood Lions
Blue Cross of India
Blue Sky Society Trust
Bonobo Conservation Initiative
Born Free Foundation
Born Free USA
Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre
Borneo Nature Foundation
Brighter Green
Bring the Elephant Home
Cape Leopard Trust
Captured in Africa Foundation
CATCA Environmental and Wildlife Society
Center for Biological Diversity
Centre for Animal Rehabilitation and Education
Cetacean Society International
Change for Animals Foundation
Coalition of African Animal Welfare Organisations
Code Animal
Community Dog Welfare Kopan
Compassion in World Farming
Compassion Unlimited Plus Action
Conservación de Mamíferos Marinos de Mexico
Countryside Management Association
CPR Environmental Education Centre
Danau Girang Field
David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation
Defenders of Wildlife
Department of Forestry and Wildlife Management, Taraba State University Jalingo
Deutscher Tierschutzbund e.V. (Germany)
Djurskyddet Sverige (Animal Welfare Sweden)
Dutch Gorilla Foundation
Dutch Society for the Protection of Animals (Dierenbescherming)
Earth Island Institute Int’l Marine Mammal Project
Eco Activists for Governance and Law Enforcement (EAGLE Network)
Elephant Human Relations Aid
Elephant Reintegration Trust
Elephants Alive
Elephant Voices
EMS Foundation
Endangered Species Coalition
Environmental Investigation Agency
Equilibrium Futures
Eurogroup for Animals
FAADA, Spain
Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations
Fish Welfare Initiative
Fondation Brigitte Bardot
Fondation Franz Weber
For Elephants
For the Love of Wildlife (FLOW)
For Tigers
Foundation Chimbo
Four Paws – International
Four Paws – South Africa
Franciscan Order – Hong Kong
Fraternité pour le respect animal
Friends of Animals
Friends of Conservation UK
Friends of the Orangutans Malaysia
Future 4 Wildlife
Future for Elephants
Future for Elephants e.V.
Gearing Up 4 Gorillas
Global Animal Law
Global March for Elephant and Rhino Poaching
Global White Lion Protection Trust
Gordon Consulting New Zealand
Great Apes Film Initiative
Greek Animal Welfare Fund
Green Girls in Africa
GREY2K USA Worldwide
Greyhound Compassion
Help Animals India
Himalayan Animal Rescue Trust
Humane Research Australia
Humane Society International – Africa
Humane Society International – Australia
Humane Society International – Global
HUTAN – Kinabatangan Orang-utan Conservation Programme
In Defence of Animals – India
In Defence of Animals – USA
In Defense of Animals International
Institute for Critical Animal Studies – Africa
International Aid For Animal Foundation
International Animal Rescue
International Fund for Animal Welfare
International Otter Survival Fund
International Wildlife Bond
Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
Japan Anti-Vivisection Association
Japan Tiger and Elephant Fund
Japan Wildlife Conservation Society
Korea Animal Rights Advocates
KYMA sea conservation & research
La Fondation Droit Animal, Ethique et Sciences (LFDA)
Lady Freethinker
Landmark Foundation
Lawrence Anthony Earth Organization
Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue & Protection
Lifelong Animal Protection
Love Animal House Thailand
Melbourn Dolphin
Monkey Helpline
Moving Animals
National Association of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty
National Council of SPCAs South Africa
Natural Resources Conservation Network
Oceanic Preservation Society
Orangutan Appeal UK
Orangutan Foundation
Orca Rescues Foundation
Outraged South African Citizens Against Rhino Poaching
Pan African Sanctuary Alliance
Panthera Africa
Pegasus Foundation
People for Animal Care and Kindness
People for Animals, Odisha
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Pettus Crowe Foundation
Pit-Track K9 Conservation & Anti-Poaching
Pro Elephant Network
Pro Wildlife
Rapad Maroc (Morocco)
Responsabile Nazionale Diritti Animali
Rettet den Regenwald (Rainforest Rescue)
Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
SAI (Save Animals Initiative) Sanctuary Trust
Sanctuary Education Advisory Specialists
Sanctuary for Health & Reconnection to Animals & Nature
Sarawak Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
Save The Asian Elephants
Scorpion Foundation Indonesia
Sea Shepherd Legal
Sea Shepherd South Africa
SEY Animal Welfare Finland
Shark Research Institute
Showing Animals Respect and Kindness
Society for Dolphin Conservation, Germany
Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals – Selangor
Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals – Singapore
Society for the Protection of Animals Ljubimci
Society for Travelers Respecting Animal Welfare
Soi Dog Foundation
South Peninsula Customary Khoisan Council
Southern African Fight for Rhinos
Species Survival Network
Stichting Painted Dog Conservation
Stichting SPOTS
Sumatran Orangutan Society
Tanglewood Foundation
Taraba Nature Conservation Initiative – Nigeria
Teyeliz, A.C
The Corbett Foundation
The Emergent Disease Foundation
The Gorilla Foundation
The Humane Society of Canada
The Jane Goodall Institute – Nepal
The Philippines Animal Welfare Society
The Winsome Constance Kindness Trust
Tree of Compassion
Trésor Foundation
Tusk Trust
Unexpected Wildlife Refuge
Vervet Monkey Foundation
Voice for dogs abroad
Voice4Lions – South Africa
Voice4Lions – UK
VShine Animal Protection Association
Water and Environment Media Network – Uganda
Wellbeing International
Wild Futures
Wild Law Institute
Wild Welfare
WildAid Southern Africa
Wildlife ACT
Wildlife Alliance
Wildlife Impact
Wildlife Rescue
Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Association, Guatemala
Working Wild
World Animal Net
World Animal Protection – Africa
World Animal Protection – International
World Cetacean Alliance
World For All Animal Care And Adoptions
Zoocheck Canada
Zoological Society of London

[1] In this document the term ‘wildlife’ refers to fauna in the wild or bred in captivity.

[2] Shereen, M.A., Khan, S., Kazmi, A., Bashir, N. and Siddique, R., 2020. COVID-19 infection: origin, transmission, and characteristics of human coronaviruses. Journal of Advanced Research.

[3] Andersen, G.A., Rambaut, A., Lipkin, W.I. et al. The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2. Nat Med (2020)

[4] World Health Organisation. Summary of probable SARS cases with onset of illness from 1 November 2002 to 31 July 2003.

[5] Grace, D., Mutua, F., Ochungo, P., et al. Mapping of poverty and likely zoonoses hotspots. Zoonoses Project 4. Report to the UK Department for International Development. 2012

[6] Jones, K.E., Patel, N.G., et al. Global trends in emerging infectious diseases. Nature. 2008

[7] Office of the Chinese Medicine Bureau, General Office of the Health and Health Commission. Notice on Issuing a New Coronary Virus Pneumonia Diagnosis and Treatment Plan (Trial Version 7). issued March 03 2020. Available as PDF on

[8] Mermin, J., Hutwagner, L., Vugia, D., et al. Reptiles, Amphibians, and Human Salmonella Infection: A Population-Based, Case-Control Study. Clinical Infectious Diseases 38 (Supp 3). 2004

[9] World Animal Protection. Cruel Cures – The industry behind bear bile production and how to end it. 2020

[10] Moorhouse, T.P., Coals, P.G.R., D’Cruze, N., Macdonald, D.W. Reduce or redirect? Which social marketing interventions could influence demand for traditional medicines? Biological Conservation 242.2020

[11] Wang, H., Shao, J., Chuai, Z., et al. Wildlife consumption ban is insufficient. Science. Vol 367, Issue 6485. 2020

[12] United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. Coronavirus: Can policymakers avert a trillion-dollar crisis? 9 March 2020:

[13] Bloomberg. Coronavirus Could Cost the Global Economy $2.7 Trillion. 6 March 2020:


Further Reading

China’s new animal health rules alone won’t stop zoonotic outbreaks, experts warn,” The Guardian, 26 January 2021

‘This makes Chinese medicine look bad’: TCM supporters condemn illegal wildlife trade,“ The Guardian, 26 May 2020

‘The vaccine is only half the story’: If a cure is found, the world must be ready for the challenges that follow,The Independent, 4 May 2020 

Global call to ban wet markets in wake of Covid-19 pandemic,” IoL, 2 May 2020

The Future of Conservation Starts with Wildlife Trade Bans,” Jared Kukura, Wild Things Initiative, 27 April 2020


Open letter to World Health Organisation and United Nations Environment Programme,” Resource Africa (supported by South African Department: Environmental Affairs), with some 250 signatories including the IUCN SULi, Safari Club International Foundation etc., 25 April 2020

Human impact on wildlife to blame for spread of viruses, says study,” The Guardian, 8 April 2020

Global Shifts in mammalian population trends reveal key predictors of virus spillover risk,” The Royal Society Publishing, 8 April 2020

Coronavirus: why a blanket ban on wildlife trade would not be the right response,” The Conversation, 8 April 2020

Coronavirus: Hundreds of conservation experts join forces to pressure WHO to force live animal markets to close,” The Independent, 7 April 2020

Open letter to World Health Organisation,” Lion Coalition, 7 April 2020

Increased Threat to Wildlife from Traditional Chinese Medicine,” IWB, 3 October 2018

Comments 5

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