The severity of the Covid-19 outbreak calls for greater attention of governments around the world to take more serious actions in preventing the life-threatening zoonotic risks related to the commercial trade in wildlife for human consumption.
In December 2019, reports of a new type of pneumonia began causing a spike in hospitalizations, emerging from Wuhan, China. The causative agent was identified to be a novel Coronavirus, subsequently named SARS-CoV-2, and the disease COVID-19. So far, there have been above over 3.6 million cases confirmed across 212 countries with over a quarter of a million deaths worldwide.
The Lao government has made good progress in controlling the spread of COVID-19 outbreak with just 19 cases reported in the country to date, 9 of which have already recovered and been discharged. Despite no confirmed cases for almost three weeks, the national task force in charge of the prevention and control of COVID-19 recognizes that the country remains at high-risk for new cases of the highly contagious virus, and continues to diligently implement prevention measures.
The severity of the COVID-19 outbreak calls for greater attention of governments around the world to take more serious actions in preventing the life-threatening zoonotic risks related to the commercial trade in wildlife for human consumption.
SARS-CoV-2 is the seventh coronavirus known to infect humans, with four of these causing the common cold and three (SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2) capable of causing severe disease. All are zoonotic diseases – diseases that can be transmitted between animals and humans. More than 70 percent of all newly emerging zoonotic diseases originate from wildlife and current investigations of potential zoonotic viruses suggest that there are over 1.6 million unknown viruses in birds and mammals. Based on decades of expertise, scientists estimate 700,000 of these agents could pose a zoonotic risk. There have been numerous examples of trade in wild animals leading to disease outbreaks in humans, yet despite the well-known human health risks and economic impacts, the trade in wild animals continues in Laos and other countries in the region.
In the wake of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, China and Viet Nam have paved the way towards permanent change in recent weeks. Both countries are taking the necessary steps towards banning the trade and consumption of wild animals, regardless of whether animals are wild-caught or captive-bred. Amendments of policy are presently under review in China and Viet Nam, and other countries are expected to follow.
In Lao PDR, there is a strong history of research by the Lao government, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and partners into wildlife trade markets across the country. Over the last ten years, wildlife disease surveillance in wildlife trade markets around Laos, led by the Department of Livestock and Fisheries, detected known and novel coronaviruses and other viruses in rodents, bats and other wild animals being sold for consumption. Although SARS-CoV-2 was not detected during this surveillance, COVID-19 shows us that new viruses capable of causing disease are out there and the presence of coronaviruses, coupled with the trade in wildlife, means potential for viral spillover exists. In 2016, Department of Livestock and Fisheries’ Dr. Bounlom Douangngeun and Dr. Watthana Theppangna published a paper with global leaders in the One Health field which documented large numbers of wild mammals from 12 taxonomic families being sold in Lao markets. Concerningly, these animals are known to host 36 different zoonotic pathogens between them, posing a direct threat to public health in the country.
“Coronaviruses and other zoonotic viruses have always been, and will always be, present in wildlife. But the answer to preventing zoonotic disease spillover events is not to kill wildlife out of fear. The answer is to respect wildlife and their space, and to avoid participating in high-risk behaviors such as the selling and consumption of wildlife in markets,” said Dr. Emily Denstedt, a veterinarian for the WCS Lao PDR Health Program.
The trade of wildlife for human consumption brings these naturally occurring viruses in wildlife closer to people, providing them the opportunity to jump from an animal species to humans, and then to spread and become an epidemic or pandemic. Close contact between wildlife, domestic animals, and humans along wild animal supply chains, particularly in Laos’ markets creates a high-risk environment for an animal virus to spill over into our people and spread throughout the country. We know from qualitative research that people in towns and cities are buying wildlife to eat as a luxury item, a behavior that could be changed without negatively impacting their food security or nutritional status, given they also have access to equally or lower-priced domestic animal meat.
According to WCS, the Lao government has made some progress towards mitigating the threats posed by wildlife markets. In May 2018, the Prime Minister’s Office issued Order No. 5 on Strengthening Compliance on the Management and Inspection of Prohibited Wild Fauna and Flora. This legal document pushed for stricter enforcement of laws concerning wildlife and the trade of wild species in Laos. A new Penal Code also became effective in October 2018 broadening and increasing the penalties associated with wildlife violations. In addition, the government is carrying out policy and regulatory reforms concerning protected areas and wildlife management and protection, which is a good opportunity to bring about stronger measures that restrict the killing, commercial breeding, transport, buying, selling, storage, processing and consumption of wildlife (wild-caught or captive-bred) to reduce the risk of a novel virus emerging along the wildlife trade value chain, to safeguard both livestock-based production systems and human health.
Ending the trade in wild animals and closing wildlife markets also address the concerns around defending subsistence hunting of wildlife by local communities for household consumption. The volume of wildlife caught and hunted for commercial trade is unsustainable. These closures would benefit local communities that are dependent on wild meat by ensuring this animal protein continues to be available until safe, sustainable livestock and plant protein sources can be better secured for them.
If the trade in wild animals continues, there is no question that spillover of zoonotic diseases will happen again in the future. The next novel disease event could occur as soon as tomorrow and may be more deadly than the one we are facing today. “We do not yet know what the final economic impact or toll on human health will be from the COVID-19 outbreak. But what is for certain is that the safest, most cost-effective way of managing an outbreak of disease is to prevent one from happening in the first place,” stated Dr. Bouaphanh Khamphaphongphane, Deputy Director of the National Centre for Laboratory and Epidemiology, Ministry of Health.
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), has now called on governments to “rigorously enforce bans on the sale and trade of wildlife for food” to prevent future pandemics. Over the long-term, abiding by this order, and effectively enforcing a ban on the sale of wildlife, would help protect the health and economic stability of Lao PDR, and move the country further towards its vision of moving off the list of least developed countries by 2024 in compliance with the Lao PDR’s green and sustainable growth direction. By closing wildlife markets permanently and strictly prohibiting commercial wildlife trade, Laos has the opportunity as a country to set an example for the rest of Southeast Asia. So, let’s get to work.
The views expressed in this article are those of WCS alone and not the Laotian Times.