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Senators want to ban U.S. from buying animals from China's 'wet markets' blamed for outbreaks

Some cats purchased at the disease-linked markets were used in gruesome - and now halted - experiments at a government lab in Maryland.
The Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, Md.
The Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, Md.Jacquelyn Martin / AP file

A bipartisan group of senators is proposing a bill to ban the U.S. from buying animals from the Chinese "wet markets" that have been blamed for outbreaks including the current coronavirus crisis.

The government has previously used animals — including cats and dogs — purchased at those markets in gruesome experiments at a federal lab in Maryland.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said the purchases effectively subsidized the markets, which are believed to be the source of the current crisis as well as the 2002 SARS outbreak.

“As Iowans, and all Americans, continue to battle COVID-19, we need to do all we can to ensure something like this never happens again. That includes preventing any more American tax dollars from going to unregulated ‘wet markets’ in China,” Ernst said.

The bill proposed by Ernst and Sens. Mike Braun, R-Ind., Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Joe Manchin, D-W.V., would ban agencies and government grantees and contractors from spending money at the markets.

A feline purchased by the USDA facility in Maryland in a photo obtained by a FOIA request. Felines, like the one shown, are used to breed kittens for taxoplasmosis experiments.WCW

NBC News reported last year that U.S. government scientists had bought hundreds of dogs and cats from "meat markets" in China and Vietnam that were then euthanized and fed to cats at the USDA's Agricultural Research Service's Animal Parasitic Disease Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland.

The experiments — some of which the agency said in scientific reports were aimed at studying a parasite that causes the food-borne illness toxoplasmosis — are believed to have been conducted between 2003 and 2015.

Jim Keen, a former USDA scientist, told NBC News the experiments sounded "crazy." "Cannibal cats, cats eating dogs — I don't see the logic," Keen said.

The A.R.S. announced it was permanently halting the experiments after the NBC News report.

The White Coat Waste Project, a non-profit that combats wasteful government spending on animal testing and waged a year-long campaign against the cat experiments, applauded the senators for their bill, which it said would "ensure government employees don’t ever go on another taxpayer-funded shopping spree for cats, dogs or any other animals" at the markets.

"The government never should have spent taxpayer dollars at China's wet markets, and this bill will make sure it never does again,” said Justin Goodman, the groups vice president of advocacy and public policy.