Pangolins – one of the world’s most trafficked animals – may have played a key role in the current coronavirus outbreak, Chinese researchers have announced. Independent experts from the UK have said this idea seems fairly plausible, but the research should be taken cautiously until the full results are published.
Scientists from South China Agricultural University have found the novel coronavirus strain that infects pangolins is around 99 percent identical to the strain found in infected people, according to Chinese state news agency Xinhua. This suggests that pangolins may be an intermediate host of the virus, acting as a go-between that allowed the virus to jump from bats to humans.
Pangolins are an order of scale-covered mammals that can be found in Africa and Asia, some species of which are critically endangered. Although protected by international law, they are the most trafficked mammal in Asia, perhaps even the world. This illegal trade is mainly driven by high demand in southern China and Vietnam, where their scales are believed to hold medicinal properties and their meat is eaten as a delicacy.
Scientists are fairly certain the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) originated in bats before being passed to humans, perhaps via another species. Considering the pangolin is globally traded through poorly regulated live-animal markets, it means they could act as very effective intermediate hosts. If this new analysis is correct, then it makes them even more of a likely suspect.
“This latest discovery will be of great significance for the prevention and control of the origin of the new coronavirus,” South China Agricultural University said on their website.
As mentioned, the results of the study have not been peer-reviewed and published yet. Although independent researchers have said the news is “interesting” and “intriguing”, they have warned to take the findings with a pinch of salt until the full data is released. It’s worth remembering that a separate genetic analysis argued that the virus might have jumped from snakes to humans and yet that theory was later discredited.
“Simply reporting detection of viral RNA with sequence similarity of more than 99 percent is not sufficient,” Professor James Wood, head of the Department of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge, commented on the findings. “Could these results have been caused by contamination from a highly infected environment?”
“The report that pangolins could be the intermediate host of the virus is intriguing,” added Professor Mark Harris, professor of Virology at the University of Leeds. “It will be interesting to see the data that support this claim.”
Meanwhile, the coronavirus outbreak is continuing to grow after starting in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019. As of 16:00 UTC February 7, there are at least 31,526 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) across the world, around 31,213 of which are in mainland China. There have also been over 638 deaths, all but a few in mainland China, surpassing the number of people that died in mainland China during the SARS outbreak (349 deaths).