Scientific studies have revealed that the genetic sequences of viruses extracted from Pangolins are 99% similar to the infamous novel coronavirus. While this is a groundbreaking discovery, the work is yet to be published formally.
For those who don’t know, Pangolins are scaly creatures used in traditional Chinese medicine. Genetic sequences of viruses isolated from the animals are 99% similar to that of the circulating COVID-19 virus. Chinese researchers from Guangzhou suggests that these long-snouted, ant-eating critters are the reason why 30,000 people and counting are infected with this rapidly-spreading virus.
Their theory is based on detailed genetic analysis and seems to be quite plausible, but scientists are saying that the world should wait for the work to be completed and published before jumping to any conclusions.
Edward Holmes, an evolutionary virologist from the University of Sydney Australia, says “we need to see more details, [but] it does make sense as there are now some other data emerging that pangolins carry viruses that are closely related to COVID-19.”
The animal source of COVID-19 is one of the main questions scientists are trying to answer. Initially, researchers assumed that the virus, known to circulate among a plethora of birds and mammals, came from bats. This conclusion was based on the fact that its genetic sequence had astounding similarities to those of other known coronaviruses. Despite this, many experts have been arguing that the virus was transmitted to humans through a different animal species. To back their claims, they cited another coronavirus, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which came from bats but was transmitted to humans via civet cats.
Shen Yongyi and Xiao Lihua, two researchers from the South China Agricultural University in Guangzhou, were responsible for identifying the pangolin as the source of COVID-19. The scientists arrived at their conclusion by comparing the coronaviruses extracted from animals and humans infected by the recent outbreak. They revealed at a press conference on February 7th that the sequences have a 99% similarity.
The Nearest Candidate
Researchers have noted in the past that coronaviruses can be fatal to pangolins. COVID-19 and other coronaviruses from pangolins use the same receptors within molecular structures to infect other cells. For now, pangolins seem to be the nearest intermediate species for the virus, and the Chinese scientists are receiving support in this conclusion from the likes of David Robertson, a computational virologist from the University of Glasgow, UK.
Pangolins are critically endangered and under protection, but illegal trafficking of them is widespread. They are sold on the black market for their scales and meat. They also form part of traditional Chinese medicine, used in the treatment of menstrual disorders, skin diseases, arthritis, and other ailments. Though pangolin trade is punishable by a minimum ten-year prison sentence, the animals are still regularly bought and sold.
The coronavirus is believed to have emerged in December 2019 from the Chinese city of Wuhan. Scientists are convinced that it latched onto humans at a wild-animal and seafood market where many of those first infected worked.
The final results will be published soon to help eradicate the coronavirus outbreak, according to Liu Yahong, president of the South China Agricultural University. Arinjay Banerjee, a coronavirus specialist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada suggested the inclusion of information on where in the pangolin’s body the two researchers found the virus. Determining whether the virus was extracted through rectal swabs and blood samples would mean knowing how to prevent it from being passed on to humans in the future.