John Calvelli on Supporting Legislation to Stop Future Pandemics

Preventing future pandemics
John Calvelli shares information on the Preventing Future Pandemics Act 

In a recent CANA Foundation zoom webinar, “Rewilding for Healthy Landscapes” in partnership with Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University, Wildlife Conservation Society Executive Vice President of Public Affairs John Calvelli spoke with CANA Foundation’s Executive Director Erin King-Sweeney about the importance of supporting the Preventing Future Pandemics Act of 2020.

With a new COVID-19 vaccine circulating and new threatening variants of the virus spreading, we at CANA Foundation are closely following the bi-partisan effort of U.S. Reps. Mike Quigley, D-Illinois, and Fred Upton, R-Michigan, who at the start of 2021 have re-introduced the Preventing Future Pandemics Act, bill, H.R. 8433 in the 116th Congress. It would instruct the U.S. Department of State to work with international partners to close commercial wildlife markets, end the trade of live wildlife, end the import, export, and sale of live wildlife for human consumption in the United States, and phase out demand for wildlife as a food source. In the coming weeks, a Senate companion bill is also set to be re-introduced by U.S. Senators Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, and John Cornyn, R-Texas.

Calvelli and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) spoke out early about the need to take action to reduce future zoonotic pandemics and support this bill. Back in March in the earlier days of the pandemic, WCS recommended stopping all commercial trade in wildlife for human consumption and that markets, like the one thought to have been the impetus for COVID-19, be closed.   

No stranger to protecting wildlife and our planet, Calvelli has been with WCS for over twenty years. WCS runs the Bronx Zoo, Central Park Zoo, Queens Zoo, Prospect Park Zoo and New York Aquarium, and field conservation programs in nearly 60 nations and across the world’s ocean. Before WCS, Calvelli served as a senior staff person to U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel and spent many years in public service.

Watch the video interview above and read on below to see the transcript and learn more. 

Erin King-Sweeney, CANA Foundation:

John, can you tell us a little bit about your proposed legislation Preventing Future Pandemics Act of 2020?

John Calvelli, Wildlife Conservation Society:

Sure. First off, we kind of have to level the playing field in terms of understanding, because a lot of scientific terms I’m going to use like zoonosis… zoonosis is zoonotic diseases–– diseases that are transmitted between humans and wildlife and back and forth between animals and humans.

About 60% of all diseases are considered zoonotic. And this causes literally, you know, billions of people that get ill every year and human death. And obviously, one of these zoonotic diseases is COVID-19. So is HIV. These are these diseases that come from one to the other, and how does this happen? How do these diseases come into existence? It’s really the fact that wildlife is being taken from places where they live and being brought into these urban environments and sold in these live markets, where one species is on top of another species, they merge, and therefore the diseases that each have then merge into a new disease, which was the case with COVID-19. So you think about why is that happening? 

One of the big problems is the wild is kind of gone. And, you know, we talked about rewilding, before this whole issue of how do we think about the wild? And how do we rewild some of those places? So for example, right now, you’ve got incredible degradation of these wild places with road building and mining and logging camps and other things. And what that’s doing is creating these opportunities for people to be even closer to nature. Some of these diseases now are being brought out. 

And then what happens is, as these all merge together, as wildlife is brought from its, you know, from its wild state, so to speak and brought to these urban environments. What happens is they shed diseases. They shed five times more diseases when they’re in cages in these wild markets than they do in the wild. And as they’re shedding those diseases, they’re merging with other animal diseases, and they’re being mutated. Unfortunately, what happens is you have these new diseases like COVID-19. 

So what our bill is trying to do is really from a bipartisan perspective, and I wanted to just echo… First of all, to thank Manda and thank Steve Israel, Congress Israel is a dear friend and a huge supporter of our work from a conservation perspective. And you know, what we’re trying to do with the bill is really to say we have to close these wildlife markets, and then we have to help the rest of the world understand the importance of that move from a humanitarian perspective, from a health perspective. And then we want to also make sure that as we’re doing that, we’re ensuring that the resources are there to keep these areas intact, and to help, in essence rewild. So that’s the essence of the bill.

And what’s most exciting is that it’s bipartisan. We have Senator Cornyn from Texas and Senator Booker from New Jersey as the co-sponsors of the bill. They’re working very closely together on this. On the house, we have 129 co-sponsors on the bill already. It’s really exciting to see. And, you know, we’re hopeful this year working with our friends in the House and the Senate that will get the bill out there, get people talking about it, and possibly the new Congress will be able to actually pass it.

Erin King-Sweeney, CANA Foundation:

Good. I’m hopeful that this is going to happen. I mean, as Congressman Israel said, I think that there’s a real spirit of bipartisanship around all these animal welfare issues, particularly now as we deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. So hopefully, the stars are aligned.

John Calvelli, Wildlife Conservation Society:

Unfortunately, you built me up to be positive and jovial. And of course, I’m talking about death, destruction and pandemic. Thank you, Erin, for that. I did want to leave on a hopeful note, which is really the work that we did 100 years ago to save the bison. And I look at the story of the of the horse and I think about our work. 

Many people don’t realize there were 30 million buffalo in America. They were hunted down to less than 1000. And we bred them at the Bronx Zoo, working with other partners, Native American community, and at the time President Teddy Roosevelt. And what we ended up doing was we bred them and then returned them back to the wild, creating some of the first federal herds of bison, in essence rewilding, and bringing back the species that have almost been on the brink of extinction. So I always remember that story when we get into these moments of real concern, because I think there are examples out there and they’ve been many examples since of how man has been able to turn back from some of the worst things that they’ve done.

Erin King-Sweeney, CANA Foundation:

Well, as you mentioned it, do you want to touch on the importance of open spaces in general? Wouter Helmer mentioned has so many of us are moving into the cities we’re expecting urbanization to continue to grow. And there’s a lot of good that comes from that, no doubt. But from your perspective, how do you feel about open spaces going forward into 2021?

John Calvelli, Wildlife Conservation Society:

I will tell you that one of the exciting things is that science is catching up with things that we always kind of knew. So for example… There was a study done in 35 countries that found that if open spaces and intact forests upstream were maintained, there was a 30% reduction in childhood waterborne diseases. So basically, by saving forests and open spaces, we actually were healthier. And that study really shows the importance of maintaining these open spaces of maintaining forests, because it’s important for our own sanitation or hygiene. 

And again, I am a huge New York booster, as I know, Steve Israel is. And at the end of the day, what New York did, which was incredible 120 years ago, was to make sure that the open spaces in New York were held intact, so that we have some of the best drinking water in the country. And the fact is that most of our water is not even chlorinated, because we don’t need to put chemicals into our water because it’s so clean. The bottom line is that was done because we maintained open spaces. And our research is also showing that we can save money by keeping these spaces open by maintaining these forests, we can save money, and we can be healthier.

Learn more about supporting the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *