Pangolins a potential intermediate host of novel coronavirus: study

The genome sequence of the novel coronavirus strain separated from pangolins was 99 percent identical to that from infected people, indicating pangolins may be an intermediate host of the virus, a study has found.

The study was led by the South China Agricultural University. According to Liu Yahong, president of the university, the research team analyzed more than 1,000 metagenome samples of wild animals and found pangolins as the most likely intermediate host.

Molecular biological detection revealed that the positive rate of Betacoronavirus in pangolins was 70 percent. Researchers further isolated the virus and observed its structure with an electron microscope. They found that the genome sequence of the coronavirus strain was 99 percent identical to those in infected people.

Results showed that pangolins are a potential intermediate host of the novel coronavirus, Liu said, adding that the study will support the prevention and control of the epidemic, as well as offer scientific reference for policies on wild animals, Xinhua reported a few hours ago (Friday).

However, researchers have not yet positively identified a definitive source for this latest outbreak, which like many other viruses can infect multiple species.

One of the first measures taken by Wuhan authorities was to close the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where 41 of the first cases originated.

“That’s the big black box right now,” said Jon Epstein, an epidemiologist with the Ecohealth Alliance, to the Associated Press.

He was in China following the 2002-2003 outbreak of SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which was traced to consumption of wild animals in the southern city of Guangzhou. Epstein helped the ongoing global effort over nearly two decades to find the wild source of that virus, which sickened more than 8,000 and killed less than 800. SARS has been linked to various animals, including bats and the cat-like masked palm civet.

Bats are known to harbor coronaviruses, but scientists have yet to fully understand the new virus and how it leapt from animals to people.

Epstein said researchers suspect but haven’t proven that the Wuhan virus came from bats. Before it infected humans, it likely first jumped to an as yet unidentified mammal.

Researchers don’t know which species exactly were sold in the Wuhan market, but Epstein said mammals commonly found in such markets — such as ferret badgers, raccoon dogs or civets — might be involved in the transmission of the new virus to people.

The crackdown on wildlife trafficking and sales persisted only about six months after the SARS outbreak faded in mid-2003, Walzer said.

“The solution is simple,” he said. “In the sense that we know where the problem is.”

In cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, there’s little sign of markets catering to gourmands seeking “ye wei,” or “wild flavors.”

But in provincial cities and in some parts of Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and other Southeast Asian countries, those determined to eat such exotic dishes can find all sorts of creatures for sale: pangolins, badgers, salamanders, scorpions, hedgehogs and even wolf puppies.

A photo of a menu list from a vendor in the Wuhan market called “Wild Game Livestock for the Masses,” circulated online, showed more than 110 species for sale.

Court records show that authorities in Hubei, the province where Wuhan is located, investigated 250 cases related to wildlife trafficking and poaching in 2019 alone. According to local media reports, since 2018 an estimated 16,000 wild animals were hunted in the province of more than 60 million people.

Hubei is home to Shennongjia, a UNESCO World Heritage nature reserve that is a habitat of great biodiversity with many rare species including the clouded leopard, golden snub-nosed monkey and the Chinese giant salamander.

Video footage filmed by a conservation activist in eastern China’s Zhejiang and Anhui provinces, which also have a long tradition of consuming wild species, showed many wild species laid out for inspection in a market.

In most cases, vendors are registered to sell some unprotected species, usually a limited amount of just a few, such as hares, wild boar and muntjac, a kind of tiny deer.

But enforcement is “not that strict,” said Tian Jiang Ming of the Anti-Poaching Squad, a group of volunteers who visit markets are report on illegal wildlife sales. The illegal offerings tend to be kept hidden away in back freezers, he said.

“The vendors are selling illegally poached animals with these licenses in hand,” he told The Associated Press.

Only in 2014 did China criminalize consumption of protected species with a law specifying a maximum three-year jail term. But it also has allowed commercial farming of certain species, including tigers — a practice that conservation advocates say encourages illicit trafficking in protected species.

It’s difficult to secure prosecution since it’s hard to prove animals have been poached, Tian Jiang Ming said.

“The forestry department needs to prove illegal poaching by the sellers but they don’t have the investigative resources to find them,” he said.


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