China’s deadly flu caused by the new coronavirus could spread from bats to humans via pangolins, the only mammal with scales, which is well-sold in Asia for gastronomy and medicine, Chinese scientists said.
Pangolin is one of the most trafficked mammals in Asia, although it is protected by international law, because it is considered a delicacy in countries such as China and its scales are used in traditional medicine, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
“This recent discovery will be significant in preventing and controlling the origin of the virus,” said South China Agricultural University, which led the study.
The outbreak, which killed 636 people in mainland China, would have made its debut at a fish market in Wuhan, Hubei Province, where wild animals were also sold.
Experts believe that it was spread by bats and then transmitted to humans, possibly through other species.
The genomic sequence of the new coronavirus strain separated from pangolins in the study was 99% identical to that of infected people, the official Chinese Xinhua agency announced, stressing that the study found that pangolins are “most likely the intermediate host”.
But Dirk Pfeiffer, a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Hong Kong, warned that the study is still far from showing that pangolins have transmitted the virus.
“You can draw definitive conclusions if you compare the spread (coronavirus – n.r.) to different species based on representative evidence, which cannot be said in this case,” he said.
Even so, transmission to humans of the virus through food markets must be established with certainty, Pfeiffer added.