U.S. government medical researchers paid to buy and slaughter kittens from the same kinds of Chinese “wet markets” that are now blamed for spreading the novel coronavirus.
Agriculture Department scientists paid for dozens of animals over the past two decades, had them killed, and fed their tongues, brains and other parts to American cats as part of research into food safety, according to the White Coat Waste Project, which exposed the controversial work in a report last year.
The Trump administration ended the cat cannibalism in the wake of the report, and the 14 kittens still alive at the testing facility were adopted.
But the prospect that American taxpayers helped boost the wet markets was horrifying at the time, and even more so given the COVID-19 outbreak, said Justin Goodman, vice president for advocacy at White Coat.
“This kind of reckless taxpayer-funded research involving disgusting wet markets — which even are known to sell experimental lab animals for consumption — put animal, human and global health in grave danger and has to be prevented in the future,” Mr. Goodman said.
On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Sen. Joni Ernst, Iowa Republican, announced legislation to permanently ban that kind of spending.
“While previous administrations should have been working to shut down these dangerous, disease-prone markets, they were subsidizing them with taxpayer money,” Ms. Earnst said. “That’s why I’m working across the aisle to prevent any more American tax dollars from going to China’s unregulated ‘supermarkets of sickness.’”
China has blamed a wet market in Wuhan, the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, for the outbreak. Chinese officials said the virus leapt from bats slaughtered at the market to people, then spread in human-to-human contact.
U.S. officials now question that version of events. The Trump administration is investigating whether the novel coronavirus may have escaped from a nearby government lab, the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Yet even there, U.S. taxpayers would shoulder some of the blame. The National Institutes of Health issued a $3.7 million grant to pay for coronavirus research at Wuhan in 2015, despite safety warnings from the State Department.
“Whether it’s the lab in Wuhan or these repulsive wet markets, Iowans shouldn’t be footing the bill for either,” Ms. Ernst said.
She joined a letter signed by more than 50 lawmakers this week to congressional leaders demanding they make sure no American taxpayer money goes to the Wuhan lab ever again.
“We’re sure you agree that taxpayers’ money should not be sent to a dangerous Chinese state-run bio-agent laboratory that lacks any meaningful oversight from U.S. authorities and is run by adversaries with a history of lab leaks, including SARS, and deception about the causes and extent of deadly disease outbreaks, including COVID-19,” the lawmakers wrote.
It’s not clear how much federal money went to the animal purchases at the Chinese markets, though the overall research cost taxpayers $650,000 a year, White Coat says.
The goal of the research was to test food safety. Mr. Goodman said the project was meant to test whether the animals bought at markets were safe to eat.
Ms. Ernst was joined by Sens. Mike Braun, Indiana Republican, and Joe Manchin III and Jeff Merkley, Democrats from West Virginia and Oregon, respectively, in proposing a permanent ban on federal money being spent at wet markets.
Whatever the original source of the COVID-19 infections, the Wuhan wet market appears to have been the site of spread for 55% of the initial cases, according to an article in The New England Journal of Medicine.
SARS, a coronavirus identified in 2003, is also believed to have sprung from a Chinese wet market, making the continued U.S. funding for buying animals at those markets all the more troubling, American officials said.
Just a couple years after the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, White Coat says, dozens of cats were bought using U.S. taxpayer money from a pet market in the Guangzhou province.
White Coat managed to obtain documents detailing a cat “menu” from 2006 detailing the “donor” cats that were purchased and then reduced to “serum, heart, feces, brain” and other parts, which were brought to the Animal Parasitic Diseases Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, where they were fed to “recipient” cats.
Another 34 cats were bought at a pet market in China in 2014 and then slaughtered and had their parts shipped to Beltsville. In both cases, the researchers who published reports on the results insisted that the slaughters were done humanely according to Chinese law.
Federally funded research also paid for dogs, ducks and chickens, all sold for food at Chinese slaughterhouses and markets in 2008 and 2013, according to papers documenting the research. They, too, were slaughtered and had pieces taken.
The dogs’ heart samples were transported in carry-on luggage on a plane, the study says.