Pangolins can be the link that allows coronavirus to spread from bats to humans, Chinese scientists claim.
At least 31,000 people have been infected and 630 killed by the virus, which has spread to two dozen countries.
Researchers from the South China Agricultural University have identified the squamous mammal as a “potential intermediate host,” the institution said in a statement on Friday.
But British academics warned that this is only a preliminary investigation and the findings are far from conclusive.
Pangolines (one depicted in Bangkok) may be the link that allowed the spread of the new corona virus in China
A woman wears a face mask at a Beijing market to protect against the corona virus, which has infected 31,000 people and killed 630
It is believed that the new virus, which emerged at the end of last year on a market for live animals in the city of Wuhan in central China, comes from bats, but researchers have suggested that there could be an “intermediate host” in transmission to humans .
After testing more than 1,000 wild animal samples, university scientists discovered that the genomic sequences of viruses on pangolins were 99 percent identical to those on coronavirus patients, the official news agency Xinhua reported.
The full study was not released and was only in a university statement that gave rise to skepticism from British scientists.
Professor James Wood, head of the Department of Veterinary Medicine, University of Cambridge, said: “The evidence for the possible involvement of pangolines in the outbreak has not been published, except by a university press release.
“This is not scientific proof; Research into animal reservoirs is extremely important, but the results must then be published for international testing to allow proper consideration. “
Professor Mark Harris of the University of Leeds weighed: ‘Although 2019-nCoV (coronavirus) has been most closely related to coronaviruses isolated from bats, it has been reported that there were no bats in the Hunan Seafood Market where the first cases of 2019- nCoV infection of people has occurred.
Pangolins are one of the most traded animals in the world because their meat is an Asian delicacy and their scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine
“This led scientists to speculate that the virus must be transmitted to humans via an intermediate species.
“Pangolins are most genetically closely related to carnivores (cats, dogs, etc.), and in particular it has been shown that the SARS virus is related to bat coronaviruses, but that it infected civet cats as a likely intermediate host before it occurred spread on people.
“It will be interesting to see the data that support this claim, which has not yet been placed in the public domain.”
The pangolin is considered to be the most traded animal in the world and, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, over a million have been taken from Asian and African forests in the last decade.
The virus has now spread worldwide, including Singapore, which depicts office workers who collect hand sanitizers
They are intended for markets in China and Vietnam, where their scales are used in traditional medicine – despite having no medical benefits – and their meat is purchased on the black market.
China imposed a temporary ban on trade in wild animals in January until the epidemic is under control.
The country has long been accused by conservationists of tolerating a shadowy trade in endangered animals for food or as ingredients in traditional medicines.
The SARS virus (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) that killed hundreds of people in China and Hong Kong in 2002 and 2003 has also been traced to wild animals. Scientists say it probably comes from bats and later reached people through civets.
A map with the worldwide coronavirus outbreak, affecting 31,000 people
WHAT ARE PANGOLINS
Seized bags of pangolin scales in a holding area in Singapore
What are pangolines?
Although their scales make many believe they are reptiles, pangolines are actually part of the mammalian family.
They are the only animals that are completely layered in bowls, which act as armor to protect it from predators.
When it is threatened, it curls itself into a tight ball, making attacks virtually impregnable.
What do pangolins eat?
These mammals store termites and larvae with their sharp-shooting sticky tongues.
The tongue – sometimes longer than the body of the creature – quickly bursts out of its mouth to pick up its food.
Are pangolins the most traded animal in the world?
Despite all eight species of pangolin that are protected against human trafficking by international law, they are, according to the World Wildlife Fund, one of the most bought and sold mammals in Asia and Africa.
In Asian countries, particularly China and Vietnam, their meat is a delicacy and their dishes are used as ingredients for traditional medicine.
Based on reported attacks between 2011 and 2013, an estimated 116,990-233,980 pangolins were killed.
But experts believe that seizures make up only 10 percent of the actual volume of pangolins in illegal trade in wild animals and plants.
Source: World nature Fund