Wuhan virus: Mounting calls for ban on wildlife trade in Indonesia as coronavirus spreads globally

People walking into a wildlife market that sells exotic animals from snakes to bats in Jatinegara, East Jakarta, on Jan 30, 2020. ST PHOTO: LINDA YULISMAN

JAKARTA - Calls are growing louder for wildlife trade to be banned in Indonesia as the Wuhan virus outbreak escalates, killing at least 170 people and infecting more than 7,700 others worldwide.

Dog Meat Free Indonesia, a coalition of several animal rights organisations, wrote a letter to President Joko Widodo, calling for "strong and immediate actions" to mitigate the risks posed by the country's animal markets.

Based on their observations, the markets serve as "the perfect breeding ground for new and deadly zoonotic viruses, such as coronavirus", the coalition added, noting it is a description that matches that of scientists.

In light of the acute situation in China, the group urged the President to take preventive and proactive measures so that Indonesia will 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 by the Indonesian media, the 64-year old said: "I am not afraid (of infection) and am just fine. I am used to it because this is my job. Even if I'm bitten (by the bat), that's normal."

An animal trader in the market since 1972, Mr Markias was not affected by the avian flu outbreak in the past.

Dr Sugiyono Saputra, a microbiology researcher from 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 its infection to 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," he said.

Dr Sugiyono recommended the monitoring of the wildlife trade in Indonesia, particularly animals coming from overseas.

Indonesia has hitherto no confirmed case of the new coronavirus infection, which started in the Chinese city of Wuhan, allegedly at a seafood market selling live animals.

People, however, are wary that it could spread through the vast archipelago of more than 17,000 islands.

Ms Fadriani Trianingsih, an employee in a think-tank, said the virus needs to be handled seriously as it is deadly. Despite the lockdown of Wuhan city, the situation is made worse by the large number of travellers criss-crossing the globe.

The Indonesian 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.

"The record of travels of both Indonesians and foreign citizens must be checked thoroughly. Airport and seaport gateways are to protect the locals, aren't they?" Ms Fadriani said.

On the wildlife trade, she said the animal markets should be regularly cleaned and the origin of the animals on sale must be tracked as well.

The government is also preparing to bring home Indonesians stranded in Hubei province, including Wuhan, and quarantine them at least 14 days on arrival to avoid contagion, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said on Thursday, Reuters reported.

At least 243 Indonesians are in the lockdown cities, with the biggest number in Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak.

More than 10 people in Indonesia have been under observation because of flu-like symptoms, but most have tested negative. The latest suspected case is an Indonesian tugboat worker who entered Batam by ferry from Singapore on Wednesday (Jan 29), health officials said.

The 40-year-old, identified only by his initial R, is being isolated at the Embung Fatimah hospital in Batam for further examination. The patient's sample has been sent to the Health Ministry in Jakarta and the test results are expected to be made public by Monday (Feb 3).

Indonesian authorities are now tracking other passengers on the Wavemaster vessel that arrived at the Batam Centre ferry terminal from Singapore at noon on Wednesday.

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