As Thailand entered a lockdown to control the spread of coronavirus in February last year, the sudden death of more than 600 horses sparked fear amongst researchers that the underlying cause was another deadly animal-borne virus that could kill humans.
It was only after the blood samples were analysed in the UK that the cause of the fatalities was confirmed to be African horse sickness – a viral disease not known to harm humans but which is widespread among equine species, including Zebras in Africa.
The disease’s abrupt arrival in Thailand, where it was then spread by biting midges, came as another warning signal to a global health community alarmed by the potential dangers of the wildlife trade.
“Commercially traded animals can carry pathogens for which people or other animals have no immune response. Those pathogens, therefore, can be passed in a number of ways, regardless of whether the animal is traded legally or illegally,” said Steven Galster, the founder of anti-trafficking NGO Freeland, one of two charities The Independent is working with as part of its Stop The Illegal Wildlife Trade in a bid to protect wildlife at risk due to the conservation funding crisis caused by Covid-19.
“If we leave these wild animals alone in their natural environments, they are not only beautiful to behold, they perform critical roles in our ecosystem, but steal or push them from their homes and they become potential sticks of dynamite.”
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Mr Galster warned the the continued commercial wildlife trade in southeast Asia is a “ticking time bomb”, risking a new virus outbreak. Six pandemics or international zoonotic outbreaks — HIV, Ebola, Bird Flu, SARS, MERS, and now Covid-19 — have been tied to the destruction of wildlife and their habitats.
There are two main drivers of such outbreaks. First, the conversion of wild habitat, often for agriculture, which pushes wild animals into farms and communities, and second, rising commercial trade in wild animals, which pulls the animals from their habitats and into urban areas.
“Both drivers cause stress for the animals and place them in unnaturally close contact with people where they can shed viruses that do no harm to the animal, but can sicken or kill people,” Mr Galster added.
The recent WHO investigation in Wuhan into the origins of Covid-19 concluded that the virus did not leak from a lab, but more likely came from commercial supply chains, either from Chinese wildlife breeding farms, or from southeast Asia.
Freeland has appealed to southeast Asian governments to close their wildlife markets as a matter of conservation and public health. The organisation has been campaigning for the past 19 years to close the wildlife section of Bangkok’s Chatuchak market, regarded as the region’s largest exotic animal market.
On Wednesday, Freeland appealed to all 10 ASEAN nations through an official meeting to do the same to any markets across the region still in operation.
Thea Kolsen Fischer, a member of the WHO delegation that took part in the Wuhan investigation, told Danish newspaper Politiken last week markets like Chatuchak could have been the source of Covid-19 and could also be the source of a new deadly virus strain and outbreak in future.
In response, the Thai Ministry of Public Health held a press conference, insisting there is no evidence of Covid-19 originating in Chatuchak or Thailand, and that further studies were needed.
Officials did reveal that an earlier inspection of Chatuchak on 19 March 2020 did discover some animals being sold there carried 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 it would roll out 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 responded to media exposes on this market, they sprayed it down, took random tests, and then reopened it, so we hope they just close it down this time,” Mr Galster added.
Freeland’s market survey found that animals such as minks, badgers, polecats, mongoose, civets, and martens, which are especially susceptible to viruses hosted by bats, including rabies, Ebola, and coronavirus, are readily available in the Chatuchak market.
Dr Abi Tamim Vanak, a scientist with Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), warned the often low levels of hygiene at such markets are cause for concern.
“Animal markets tend to keep wild animals from different regions in one place, with scant regard for the fact that these animals might be a host to a number of viruses,” he said.
“Because they are kept on top of each other, different kinds of viruses circulate in the air and through their saliva and other body fluids, potentially going from one animal to another.”
When this happens, the chance of viruses mutating and becoming capable of infecting other animals and even humans is increased.
Mr Galster said the only way to prevent such risks is to halt the animal trade entirely until there is greater regulation is put in place.
“This means that before you are allowed to commercially trade the species you must submit a report saying that you are certain such trade will not harm either that species population or the public,” he said.
“We in fact believe the only way to ensure we do not drive these species to extinction and cause another pandemic in the meantime is to end commercial trade in wild animals.
“To keep these markets open and pretend they can be safely regulated, after Wuhan, is like saying we can safely regulate nuclear bombs after Nagasaki.”