s Thailand has entered a blockade to control the spread of coronavirus in February last year, the sudden death of more than 600 horses has sparked fears among researchers that the underlying cause is another deadly animal virus that could kill humans.
Only after the blood samples were analyzed in Britain that the cause of the deaths has been confirmed as an African horse disease – a viral disease not known to harm humans but widespread among horse species, including Zebras in Africa.
The sudden arrival of the disease in Thailand, where it was then spread by biting flies, came as another warning signal to a global health community alarmed by the potential dangers of the wild trade.
“Commercially traded animals can carry pathogens for which humans or other animals have no immune response. So those pathogens can be transmitted in many ways, regardless of whether the animal is legally or illegally exchanged,” said Steven Galster, the founder of anti-smuggling NGO Freeland, one of two charities. The Independent works with it as part of its Stop The Illegal Wildlife Trade in an attempt to protect a wild animal at risk due to the conservation financial crisis caused by Covid-19.
“If we leave these wild animals alone in their natural environments, they are not only beautiful to look at, they play critical roles in our ecosystem, but steal or drive them away from their homes and they become possible dynamite rods.”
Mr Galster warned that the ongoing wildlife trade in Southeast Asia is a “ticking clock bomb”, risking a new virus outbreak. Six pandemics or international zoonotic outbreaks – HIV, Ebola, Bird Flu, SARS, MERS, and now Covid-19 – have been linked to the destruction of animals and their habitats.
There are two main drivers of such outbreaks. First, the conversion of wildlife, often for agriculture, which pushes wildlife into farms and communities, and second, a growing wildlife trade that draws the animals from their habitats and into urban areas.
“Both drivers cause stress for the animals and put them in unnaturally close contact with humans, where they can shed viruses that do not harm the animal but can make people sick or kill people,” Mr. Galster added.
The recent WHO survey in Wuhan of the origins of Covid-19 concluded that the virus did not flow out of a laboratory, but was more likely to have come from commercial supply chains, either from Chinese livestock farms or from Southeast Asia.
Freeland called on Southeast Asian governments to close their natural markets as a matter of conservation and public health. The organization has been campaigning for the past 19 years to close the natural section of Bangkok’s Chatuchak market, considered the region’s largest exotic animal market.
On Wednesday, Freeland called on all 10 ASEAN nations through an official meeting to do the same to any markets across the region still operating.
Thea Kolsen Fischer, a member of the WHO delegation who took part in the Wuhan survey, told a Danish newspaper Politics last week markets like Chatuchak could be the source of Covid-19 and could also be the source of a new deadly virus strain and explosion in the future.
In response, the Thai Ministry of Public Health held a press conference, insisting that there is no evidence of Covid-19 originating from Chatachaka or Thailand, and that further studies are needed.
Officials revealed that an earlier inspection of Chatachaka on March 19, 2020 found that some animals sold there have a different strain of coronavirus. The ministry added that they are now working with other authorities to closely inspect the Chatuchak animal market. It added that it will launch a plan to increase the protection of wildlife and prevent the trade of wild animals in markets.
Freeland responded to the ministry’s statement with “cautious optimism.”
“The last time authorities reacted to media exposure on this market, they sprayed it, did random tests and then reopened it, so we hope they will only close it this time,” Mr Galster added.
Freeland’s market research found that animals such as minks, badgers, porpoises, mongooses, civets and weasels that are especially sensitive to viruses hosted by bats, including rabies, Ebola and coronavirus, are readily available in the Chatuchak market.
Dr Abi Tamim Vanak, a scientist at Ashoka Trust for Research on Ecology and Environment (ATREE), warned that the often low levels of hygiene at such markets cause concern.
“Animal markets tend to keep wild animals from different regions in one place, with little respect for the fact that these animals could host many viruses,” he said.
“Because they are held on top of each other, various types of viruses circulate in the air and through their saliva and other body fluids, possibly going from one animal to another.”
When this happens, the chance of viruses mutating and becoming able to infect other animals and even humans increases.
Mr Galster said the only way to prevent such risks is to stop the animal trade altogether until greater regulation is put in place.
“This means that before you are allowed to trade the species commercially, you must send a report saying that you are sure that such trade will not harm either that species or the public,” he said.
“We actually believe that the only way to ensure that we don’t push these species to extinction and cause another pandemic in the meantime is to stop wildlife trade.
“Keeping these markets open and pretending they can be safely regulated, after Wuhan, is like saying we can safely regulate nuclear bombs after Nagasaki.”