Three years after COVID spread around the world, and investigators have zeroed in on the likely source: A lab in China. But animal liberation activists are still obsessed with a self-serving theory that COVID came from a meat market, a theory that has been discredited.
But never count on facts to get in the way of an ideological narrative. Last month, Harvard released a wild report claiming that farms, zoos, or even pet stores could be the source of a future pandemic. “Zoonotic risk is everywhere,” it concludes in ominous terms.
The report is clearly meant to scare people into demanding the government shut down or marginalize many industries. It’s just missing one thing: Credibility.
The first thing you should notice about this report is which school at Harvard released it. Was it the Harvard School of Public Health–folks who might be experts in communicable disease? No. It was the Harvard Animal Law program.
A gaggle of animal-rights lawyers released a report on disease. That’s like a biologist commenting on monetary theory.
Of the six authors, five are with Harvard’s animal law program and one is a law professor with NYU’s program for animal protection. None appears to have any background in disease or virology, although one ironically has experience as a fiction writer.
And of the five people who reviewed the report, four are lawyers (including two former PETA employees). The last is a student–yes, a student–in a grad program about diseases.
As for funding, the report states, “This research was made possible by the generous support of the Brooks Institute for Animal Rights Law & Policy,” a group that has also funded PETA. Several other animal law university programs provided resources.
An animal rights foundation funded vegan/animal rights lawyers to write a report disparaging livestock farms, pet stores, and zoos. And in other news, the New York Yankees have issued a report claiming the Boston Red Sox are scoundrels.
With that introduction, let’s get to the meat of the Harvard paper’s argument.
The authors argue that a swath of businesses or facilities that use animals are a threat for creating a future pandemic. Zoos and aquariums, farms of all kinds and sizes, and pet stores are singled out. Even raising backyard chickens is flagged as a disease threat.
But what is the actual risk of backyard chickens starting a global pandemic?
Generally, you can estimate risk as a probability of something occurring. Something might have a one-in-ten chance of happening; another thing might be one-in-a-million.
At one point, the Harvard report features a chart. The rows are different venues, like farms and pet stores. The columns are factors such as “mixing of species” and “biosecurity” for each venue. Each factor is assigned a label of “high,” “medium,” “low,” or “negligible” risk.
But this is the critical flaw of this report: Nowhere is “risk” defined. “High” and “low” are simply relative terms–opinions that, in this report, have no clear justification.
Theoretically, we are “at risk” of an alien invasion of Earth. But no one perceives this risk as significant. If someone tried to raise $100 billion to build a space army, no one would take them seriously.
Why isn’t risk defined? Because the answer would likely be this: The “risks” raised by the report are extremely low.
Consider flipping the question: If farms, zoos, pet stores, and other businesses are at such a risk of creating a pandemic, why hasn’t a major outbreak occurred?
Animal liberation activists might respond “luck.” But a better answer might be that we have pretty good risk mitigation protocols already.
Consider: Farms have strong biosecurity measures. On farms we’ve been to, you have to shower in, shower out, and wear separate clothes while you’re in the barns. (Ironically, it is animal rights activists trespassing onto farms who commonly break biosecurity measures–something that isn’t mentioned in the Harvard report.)
Antibiotic use is strictly regulated in the United States. Antibiotic use on farms is restricted to the treatment or prevention of disease–in other words, to keep animals healthy. Animal rights activists lobby for restrictions on antibiotic use, which would lead to more sick animals. That’s the opposite of progress in fighting disease.
What’s omitted from the report is also telling. Animal rescues have been linked to the spread of diseases. Investigators linked the introduction and outbreak of H3N2 Asian dog flu in 2015 to animal rescuers. Asian dog flu was a novel disease and sickened over 1,000 pets in the initial outbreak–and many more since. A dog rescued from Korea also brought a new disease to Canada. Rescuers with Humane Society International also transported canine brucellosis to Wisconsin from Korea.
Yet animal rescue isn’t mentioned in the report as a disease risk. Why not? One reason might be that the authors are friends with animal rights groups that make loads of money off rescues.
Additionally, the focus on animal farms fails to mention that fruits and vegetables are a significant vector for foodborne diseases. Tomatoes can carry Salmonella and leafy greens can be contaminated by E. coli. But considering animal rights activists want people to eat “plant-based” diets, they have an ideological incentive to not talk about all the ways plants can sicken people.
At face value, the Harvard report acts as if it’s just trying to be a helpful warning calling for the country to develop better risk mitigation or preparedness measures. But the authors have an ulterior motive. One author was just named head of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which advocates veganism and an “Animal Bill of Rights.”
In the concluding section, the authors let their real agenda show. Claiming that most people don’t wear fur coats, visit drive-through zoos, or compete in livestock shows, they write: “Surveying this landscape of low-hanging fruit, lawmakers and regulators should consider whether each practice justifies the risk it poses.”
The hint is clear: This report is designed to support shutting down activities people enjoy because animal rights activists don’t like them.
Ever since the COVID outbreak, animal rights activists have been desperately trying to link farms or meat to pandemics to advance their political agenda. Dressed up behind the Harvard brand, these authors are using the oldest trick in the book: Fearmongering.