China’s attempts to prevent another zoonotic disease outbreak will fail without deep changes in enforcement, oversight, and extensive investment to ramp up veterinary capacity, say experts.
China’s top lawmakers last week approved revisions to the country’s law on preventing the spread of animal diseases. Amendments to the Animal Epidemic Prevention Law, due to come into force in May, were accelerated in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The outbreak of the deadly pig disease African swine fever (ASF), which has decimated as much as 40% of China’s pig production since 2018, has been an added impetus for reform.
The new measures include a system of quarantine standards for captive bred wildlife; revisions to a system for classifying animal epidemics based on their potential impact on human health, the economy and the public; compulsory vaccinations; and stipulations for veterinarians to pass qualification tests.
However, observers said the challenge was poor enforcement of rules, rather than the need for new ones. “If China is truly to prevent and tackle future viruses, it is immensely important that the revised law is not simply adopted or revised and then ignored,” Peter J Li, a China policy specialist at the Humane Society International, told the Guardian.
Li said existing laws were already strong enough to have prevented both the Covid-19 pandemic and the Sars epidemic but that rules largely were not followed or enforced.
Anyone raising captive bred wildlife must already ensure that animals pass health inspections and quarantines, but these rules are not strictly followed within the wildlife farming community, he said. Central and local government authorities who view the wildlife trade as a cash cow do little to enforce the law.
It is already prohibited to transport animals without health certification and to fail to report outbreaks. Existing rules mandated wastewater treatment and sterilisation facilities; and rules requiring farms, slaughterhouses and processing facilities to be located far from human activity were on the books, he said.
“Unfortunately, these articles have universally been violated or held in contempt by the animal-related businesses, and local authorities have failed massively to enforce the law,” Li said.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization both declined to comment on the amendments when contacted by the Guardian.
“The Chinese government, especially the local health and law enforcement authorities, must put more efforts and resources into policing and enforcing the laws,” said Deborah Cao, a professor at Griffith University in Australia and an expert in China’s animal-related laws. “Otherwise, the laws will just be reduced to, as the Chinese say, empty words on a piece of paper.”
Increasing the number of qualified veterinarians across China to help with inspections, quarantines and general animal health is seen as an important step.
According to Wang Gongmin, deputy chief of the agriculture ministry’s Department of Veterinary Services, by 2018 China had around 100,000 veterinarians – but the country needs nearly 400,000 to adequately address animal disease prevention.
The problem is particularly acute in rural areas where pay is low and recently-graduated veterinarians are less likely to go. Opening a pet shop and clinic in a major city is much more profitable.
“Producing more veterinarians can be a solution, and licensing the existing veterinary practitioners may be a short-cut,” Li said.
While China moved to stop all breeding of wildlife for meat consumption in mid-2020, it still allows the use of wildlife for fur farming, traditional Chinese medicine and other similar uses, raising concerns of the potential for disease in the absence of proper biosecurity measures.
The wildlife ban angered thousands of farmers who had been encouraged to raise wildlife by local government. Many breeders still do not understand why they were shut down with no proof that the Covid-19 virus came from the species of animal they raised.
“I used to raise pigs, then ASF hit, and my pigs were culled. Then I turned to raising bamboo rats and then this happened,” said a 34-year-old former soldier turned farmer in Fujian province, who did not want his name used for fear of reprisals from local authorities.
“The authorities made a mistake [in thinking bamboo rats spread Covid-19] but the country just went with it, and now we’re suffering as a result,” he said.
Mr Zhu from Hunan province, who had raised nearly 500 bamboo rats, said he was only able to get 27,000 yuan (GBP3,000) in compensation for his culled animals although he had invested over 120,000 yuan in the operation.
Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak no inspectors or veterinary authorities ever came to check on his bamboo rat business, which he had operated since 2013, Zhu said. “This is a special type of farming and there are just too many of us for that.”
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