DNP’s vets conducted random tests on pet animals in Chatuchak Market. Credit: DNP

Thailand as origin of Covid-19 “misquoted”

WHO Thailand has confirmed the WHO expert’s statement suggesting Thailand as the origin of Covid-19 as reported in a Danish newspaper was misquoted, while Thai agencies including the Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation took turn dismissing the report yesterday, assuring there was no Covid-19 in pet animal markets or in natural reservoirs here

WHO Thailand has released the statement today, confirming that the statement made by an WHO expert, who was on an international expert team sent to investigate the origins of the virus in China recently, was misquoted by the Danish paper (Politiken). She was reported of having linked the origin of Covid-19 to Thailand’s popular pet market, Chatuchak.

As also revealed by a well-known antiwildlife trafficking organization, Freeland, which claims that its representative was also quoted by the paper alongside, the paper had reported that the experts were concerned about the conditions of Chatuchak market and other wildlife markets like it in Asia, while continuing further that such markets “could have been” the source of COVID-19, and that they “could be” the source of a new zoonotic outbreak.

WHO Thailand said in the statement that its expert was recently misquoted as suggesting that the origin of the virus was Thailand. It further noted that there is no current evidence to suggest this, and the article with the misquote has since been corrected.

The international expert team recently concluded its mission to China, and is working on its report, WHO Thailand further noted. The report will summarize the findings from that mission, including from discussions with Chinese scientists. It will also outline the remaining gaps in knowledge and outline next steps, including further studies that will need to be conducted in China and “elsewhere”, but without further elaboration provided, according to WHO Thailand.

The organization said the report will not provide a conclusion on the virus origins, as much more work remains to be done to reach such a conclusion.

“Given past experiences with these types of studies, the search for the origin of the virus may take months or even longer,” said WHO Thailand.

Guard high

The Disease Control Department, which also held the press conference yesterday said the department along with the DNP and other concerned agencies have the disease control and prevention plan in place for such the pet market as well as some other four markets in Bangkok and its peripheries.

Besides, the DNP has been conducting random tests on pets traded in Chatuchak Market. In March last year, the department revealed that a coronavirus was found, but it was not the lethal strain of Covid-19.

Thanya Nettithammakul, DNP’s Director General, said the department has conducted random tests in every group of animals traded in the market, and it did not find the virus there. So, the statement made by foreign media outlets was unfound.

Animals allowed to be traded in the market, he said, would be only those with permissions for trade, breeding, and imports.

The department also regularly sends its special taskforce to check for illegal conducts while providing traders with instructions in regard to disease control and prevention.

 The department has also been working with other institutes including Chulalongkorn University and Kasetsart University, conducting a study and monitoring on potential newly emerging infectious viruses in natural reservoirs here including bats.

The study and survey in mid-last year, in collaboration with Duke-NUS University, found that some local crown bats had carried a coronavirus strain with the genetic code shared with that of Covid-19 up to 91 %.

However, Dr. Pattarapol Maneeon, DNP’s Head of Animal Health Management Division, told Bangkok Tribune that this does definitely not mean it’s Covid-19 as this requires a 100% of the genetic code shared between the two strains. Still, monitoring is needed as viruses can mutate in hosts.

The coronavirus strain  found in the bats they had captured, he said, was not infectious in people. (Read: Special Report: Call them “Virus Hunters”)

Pets sold in Chatuchak.
Credit: Freeland

A call on closing the animal market

Freeland, meanwhile, stood behind the statement. It said on its FB Page today; “We did not say Chatuchak is the source of COVID-19. It might be. It could also very well be the source of a new deadly outbreak.”

It made its observations on the issue, saying the officials concerned did not test every single one of the tens of thousands of animals in the market during their single test run on March 19.

Second, it questioned whether officials can assure the public that the other coronavirus they discovered at Chatuchak, or a strain of bird flu, which Freeland believes is a high risk in Chatuchak, Ebola, rabies, or other zoonotic diseases that can be carried and transmitted by species on sale there are not in fact there.

“Thailand has practiced a “better-safe-than-sorry” approach to the pandemic. Closing the Chatuchak animal market would be consistent with this approach,” said the organization.

Freeland suggested if any legal dealers need to be compensated, as it has voiced throughout its multi-year campaign, the government and international community can allocate a small percentage of pandemic recovery and stimulus packages to give such people a one-off compensation to help them transition out of the wildlife trade and into another line of work.

“The safety of our world is more important than keeping Chatuchak animal market and other similar markets open,” the organization remarked, as resonating other anti-wildlife trade worldwide to close animal markets as an approach to deal with newly emerging infectious disease following the Covid-19 outbreak in China’s Wuhan late last year.

Steve Galster, Freeland Founder, said leaving this market and other wildlife markets like it open and saying they can be regulated after Wuhan, is like saying “we can safely regulate the use of nuclear weapons after Nagasaki”.

“We appeal to authorities to take this matter as seriously as possible and close down Chatuchak animal market and all commercial trade in wild animals as a matter of urgency,” said Mr. Galster.