The recent discovery of a COVID-19 cluster in the Agriculture Ministry has added to a growing list of such office outbreaks and had raised concerns about possible transmission between animals and humans in Indonesia.
About 350 employees of the ministry’s directorate general for livestock and animal health have been tested for the virus, and at least 17 have been found positive, according to department spokesperson Aryani Gumelar.
Aryani said all ministry employees had been instructed to work from home from Monday to Wednesday and that authorities had sealed off part of a building in the ministry’s complex in Jakarta for disinfection. The infection was traced to floors six through nine of Building C in Ragunan, South Jakarta.
The outbreak is the latest in a series of office clusters that have emerged in the capital. By the end of July, the Jakarta administration had reported around 90 office clusters as economic activity in the city gradually resumed.
But the Agriculture Ministry cluster has raised additional concerns in scientific circles because the people who were infected likely had recent contact with animals.
Diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans and vice versa are "zoonoses". This category includes some of the world’s most common diseases, such as tuberculosis, rabies, toxoplasmosis and malaria.
According to the UN Environment Program, some 60 percent of human infectious diseases originate from animals.
Further research is required to determine all the factors that have caused the pandemic, but so far, much of the scientific world suspects that bats and pangolins acted as carriers of the virus.
However, Aryani did not believe the ministry’s cluster was the result of zoonotic transmission.
“For the spread of the virus itself, we confirmed that it did not originate from animals and that it was most likely caused by human transmission,” Aryani told The Jakarta Post on Monday.
She said that while the directorate general handled technical matters pertaining to livestock and animal welfare – which meant staff members were likely to come in contact with animals – all of the staffers had been cleared to work in the office or in the field.
Standard health protocols remained in place, including physical distancing, augmented personal hygiene practices and a 50-50 split for in situ and remote work.
Aryani said that only staff members had been infected and that management was safe. She did not say which employees had tested positive.
The ministry’s head of public relations, Kuntoro Boga Andri, said that the ministry had formed a COVID-19 task force with medical doctors and health workers to trace and isolate the virus.
The task force is now periodically conducting rapid tests on ministry officials and will follow up with swab tests when necessary. Kuntoro said the ministry had stepped up its tracing and detection efforts because most of its staff actively worked in the field.
“We are still working to serve farmers, ranchers and people who need the support of the ministry during this pandemic,” Kuntoro said in a statement on Tuesday. “Every time we go out into the field, we are routinely tested.”
Nearly 24 million people worldwide have caught COVID-19 and more than 820,000 people have died of the disease.
The virus is believed to have first appeared in animals sold at a wildlife market in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, although newer studies have cast doubt on this theory.
While the ministry has insisted that the new cluster was not the result of zoonotic transmission, Laura Navika Yamani, an epidemiologist at Airlangga University, said that contact tracing was urgently needed to discover the origin and potential extent of the cluster.
“The people who have tested positive for COVID-19 must be intensively interviewed about who they interacted with at the office,” Laura told the Post on Monday.
While new pandemics were not often associated with animals already in close contact with humans, such as livestock, Laura urged caution because other pathogens from animals could still infect humans, making them more vulnerable to COVID-19.
The epidemiologist also called for a review of the ministry’s COVID-19 protocols to better protect other staff members.
She criticized the ministry for its three-day closure of the suspected site of infection, comparing it to the global practice of sealing off such areas for fourteen days.
“Disinfecting rooms may eradicate [the virus itself], but it will not ensure that the place will be free of virus carriers,” she said.
The virus may incubate for up to 14 days in the human body before symptoms become apparent.
Microbiology researcher Sugiyono Saputra of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) said that some animals may be able to contract COVID-19 from humans, such as cats, dogs, tigers, lions and minks, although livestock such as swine and poultry were not vulnerable to the virus.
He said the keys to controlling zoonotic disease transmission – from animal to human and vice versa – were basic biosecurity measures and good hygiene.
“People suspected or confirmed to have contracted COVID-19 should not be allowed in direct contact with animals, including pets, and vice versa. They must be isolated from other animals and humans,” Sugiyono said.