Story at a glance

  • Chinese researchers have identified the pangolin as a potential intermediate host.
  • Scientists found the genome sequences of viruses in pangolins to be 99 percent identical to those in coronavirus patients.
  • Scientists warn more information would need to be made public before any conclusion can be drawn.

A scaly animal that is one of Asia’s most illegally trafficked mammals may have spread the coronavirus to humans, according to a Chinese university.

So far, the coronavirus has infected more than 31,000 people in China, and the death toll has surpassed 630 since the outbreak started in Wuhan in December. It’s believed to have been passed to humans at a seafood and wild-animal market. 

The coronavirus is believed to have originated in bats and transferred to humans through some other animal. Now researchers at the South China Agricultural University say the pangolin, a mammal illegally trafficked in large numbers for its scales and meat, may be the link. 

“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 in a statement

Researchers said they found a 99 percent match between the genome sequences of viruses in pangolins and those in human patients after testing more than 1,000 samples from wild animals, the AFP reported

But other scientists are questioning the research. Scientists say the suggestion based on a genetic analysis seems plausible, but caution that the researcher’s work is yet to be published completely.

“This is an extremely interesting observation. Although we need to see more details, it does make sense as there are now some other data emerging that pangolins carry viruses that are closely related to 2019-nCoV.” Edward Holmes, an evolutionary virologist at the University of Sydney, Australia said in Nature

Other independent scientists said much more information is needed before a conclusion can be drawn. James Wood, head of the veterinary medicine department at Britain's University of Cambridge, told Reuters the research was far from robust.

"The evidence for the potential involvement of pangolins in the outbreak has not been published, other than by a university press release. This is not scientific evidence," Wood told Reuters.

Pangolins, the world’s only scaly mammal, are protected animals but are illegally trafficked in large numbers, with some species are critically endangered. They are sought after for their meat and scales, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. 

Published on Feb 07, 2020