Is China exporting pandemics with VAT subsidies?

Is China exporting pandemics with VAT subsidies?
© getty: Chinese seafood vendors wait for customers at a wet market in Beijing

Publicly, China’s leaders bristle at the Trump administration’s evidence-free claim that the coronavirus escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan. But secretly they must be thanking President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments Ocasio-Cortez: Trump contributed less in taxes 'than waitresses and undocumented immigrants' Third judge orders Postal Service to halt delivery cuts MORE for the distraction while China is exporting – with 9 percent VAT rebates to the exporters, no less – potential virus-carrying exotic wildlife of the kind that likely started the pandemic. 

The probable origin of the coronavirus was not a laboratory but the exotic animal section of the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan. Animal markets like this one combine a Noah’s Ark from hell with a lethal pandemic petri dish.

Stalls are jammed together to form narrow lanes where buyers browse and buy from among some 75 species of animals in tiny, cramped cages stacked on and next to each other. To satisfy demand for fresh meat, vendors slaughter and skin animals in front of customers, which mixes animal blood, saliva and feces. The stress from the overcrowding weakens the immune systems of the animals, which are left more susceptible to infections and shed viruses.

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Two-thirds of 41 of the earliest identified COVID-19 cases had direct ties to the Wuhan market. While the precise cause of the outbreak has not been identified, a leading theory is that the coronavirus was transmitted by jumping from a bat to an animal sold in the market, perhaps a pangolin, and then to a human. 

In early January, Wuhan closed the market and in February the China’s National People’s Congress, in order to protect the “health and safety of the people,” banned the domestic sale and consumption of edible wild animals. But in China, which has the world’s largest wildlife industry, farmers can still breed exotic creatures as long as they are not sent to domestic food markets. And as disclosed in a largely ignored Congressional Research Service report, China has begun incentivizing the export of bred and captured monkeys, edible snakes and reptiles, turtles, and pigeons, among others, to foreign exotic wildlife markets by providing a 9 percent VAT rebate to the exporters. 

While the amounts are not large, the CRS report warns that China’s subsidized wildlife exports “could spread the [pandemic] risk to global markets.” Before export the wildlife are susceptible to viral infections on the Chinese farms or facilities that breed and house them, just as they were in the Wuhan market. “Housing a massive number of captive bred and wild-caught animals together in similar conditions is also happening in breeding farms, in transportation, and in restaurants,” Peter Li, Humane Society International’s China policy expert, explained by email. “Each of these pieces is a potential breeding ground for epidemic outbreaks in its own right.”  

To China the “health and safety” of the rest of the world evidently is less important than protecting its wildlife industry. It is scandalous that the Trump administration, with its “don’t blame us blame China” focus on the Wuhan laboratory, appears to be ignoring Chinese behavior that risks another pandemic.     

Americans are not blameless because we directly and indirectly support the global wildlife trade by buying souvenirs that contain trafficked animal parts and by importing exotic pets from boa constrictors to tigers. In 2003, for example, the first outbreak of the monkeypox virus outside Africa occurred in the United States when an Illinois distributor imported 800 monkeys from Ghana. Bats are slaughtered in Asia, and Americans buy them on eBay and Etsy.

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The Humane Society and hundreds of other wildlife organizations have called on world governments to end the wildlife trade and markets. It will not be easy because so many livelihoods, especially in China, depend on wildlife sales. But COVID-19 has already taken hundreds of thousands of lives, thrown as many as a hundred million people into extreme poverty, and will likely wipe out more than 5 percent of the world’s 2020 GDP

That should be the last word on ending a pandemic-spreading industry built on tormenting helpless creatures. 

Gregory J. Wallance, a writer in New York City, was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author most recently of “The Woman Who Fought An Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring.” Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.