On Friday (February 7), scientists investigating the animal origins of the novel coronavirus said pangolins could be responsible for the spread of the virus to humans in China.
The scientists, whose findings are yet to be published, have found that the genome sequence of the coronavirus isolated from pangolins was 99 per cent identical with that separated from infected humans.
Pangolins are considered to be one of the most trafficked animals in the world and are classified as a critically endangered species. According to Chinese law, people who sell pangolins can be imprisoned for a period of 10 years or more. Despite this, thousands of pangolins are poached every year due to their “medicinal value” and the consumption of their meat in countries such as China and Vietnam.
It is believed that the novel coronavirus spread from the seafood market in Wuhan, where live animals are sold. The identification of the novel coronavirus’ source is among the most important questions researchers are probing, since it will help figure out a way to control the outbreak and analyse the threat.
The SARS coronavirus, which was identified in 2003, is believed to have spread from bats to civet cats to human beings. Regarding the novel coronavirus, scientists had earlier claimed snakes could be its source, though the theory was dismissed.
The website of the South China Agricultural University in China’s Guangzhou says a study by two of its researchers has shown that “pangolin is a potential intermediate host for a new type of coronavirus. This latest discovery will be of great significance for the prevention and control of the origin of the new coronavirus”.
An article published in the journal Nature on February 7 says that previously, researchers have noted that coronaviruses are a possible cause of death in pangolins. “Even before today’s announcement, pangolins were a good candidate for being an intermediate species for the virus, so it’s very interesting that the researchers have found such a close sequence,” the article quoted David Robertson of the University of Glasgow as saying.
Even so, independent scientists are questioning the robustness of the study.
Regarding the consumption of pangolins by the Chinese, a separate article published in Nature says that the animals, also known as scaly ant-eaters, are the most primitive Chinese mammals used for meat, while their scales are used to prepare medicines.
As per the article, fresh scales are never used, but are dried and then roasted, “ashed, cooked in oil, butter, vinegar, boy’s urine, or roasted with earth or oyster-shells, to cure a variety of ills”. Some of these illnesses include excessive nervousness, hysterical crying in children, women possessed by devils and ogres, malarial fever and deafness.