Calls are growing louder for wildlife trade to be banned in Indonesia as the Wuhan virus outbreak escalates, killing more than 200 and infecting nearly 10,000 people worldwide.
Dog Meat Free Indonesia, a coalition of several animal rights organisations, wrote a letter to President Joko Widodo calling for "strong and immediate action" to mitigate the risks posed by the country's animal markets.
Based on its observations, the markets serve as "the perfect breeding ground for new and deadly zoonotic viruses such as coronavirus", the coalition added.
In the light of the acute situation in China, the group urged Mr Joko to take preventive and proactive measures so Indonesia would not become the next point of origin of a deadly virus, The Jakarta Post reported. "We urge you to prioritise the health and well-being of the overwhelming majority of the Indonesian population, rather than the preferences and profitability of a few at the expense of national and global interests," the letter read.
In a wildlife market in Jatinegara, East Jakarta, vendors are doing a roaring business selling exotic animals from snakes to bats.
Vendor Markias Buyung sells bats that buyers normally make into soup and use as a medicine for asthma and respiratory diseases. Each bat is sold at 350,000 rupiah (S$35).
"I help (buyers) clean the bats," he told The Straits Times, adding that he does not bother to wear a mask, gloves or even wash his hands.
Aware of the risk as the Wuhan virus is widely reported in the media, he said: "I am not afraid (of infection) and am just fine. I am used to it because this is my job. Even if I am bitten (by the bat), that is normal."
An animal trader in the market since 1972, Mr Markias, 64, was not affected by the avian flu outbreak in the past.
Dr Sugiyono Saputra, a microbiology researcher from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, said the coronaviruses, including the Wuhan virus, are mostly found in bats and other warm-blooded animals such as the mouse and weasel.
Although he warned about the possibility of infecting humans, he said: "Even if an animal has it (the virus), it is still possible for it not to cause infection in humans. Those that can spread the virus to humans are ones that have experienced genetic selection such as a gene mutation."
Dr Sugiyono recommended the monitoring of the wildlife trade in Indonesia, particularly animals coming from overseas.
Indonesia has no confirmed case of the new coronavirus infection, which started in the Chinese city of Wuhan, allegedly at a seafood market selling live animals.
Ms Fadriani Trianingsih, an employee in a think-tank, said the virus needs to be handled seriously as it is deadly and spreads by airborne transmission. The authorities need to tighten security at the country's entry points not only by using thermal scanners, but also checking the travel history of each arriving passenger from abroad, she added.
She said the animal markets should be regularly cleaned and the origin of the animals on sale must be tracked as well.
Yesterday, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said the government will bring home Indonesians stranded in Hubei province, with the aircraft scheduled to leave Indonesia within 24 hours. At least 243 Indonesians are in China's locked-down cities.
Health Ministry director for infectious disease control and prevention Wiendra Waworuntu said they will be quarantined for at least 14 days on arrival to avoid contagion.
As of Thursday, 16 people in Indonesia who had been placed under observation for flu-like symptoms tested negative for the coronavirus. Another eight are still under observation. The latest suspected case is an Indonesian tugboat worker who entered Batam by ferry from Singapore on Wednesday, health officials said. The patient's test results are expected to be made public by Monday.
Responding to a Sydney Morning Herald report that the specific reagents used in testing kits to detect the Wuhan virus are still not available in Indonesia, Dr Vivi Setiawaty at the Health Ministry said that the ministry's laboratory, accredited by the World Health Organisation, has had the reagents since late December.