Chinese researchers said on Friday that the coronavirus outbreak in China could have spread from bats to humans through the illegal trafficking of pangolins.
Pangolin is the world’s only scaly mammal, which is prized in Asia for food and medicine.
The World Wildlife Fund says pangolin is one of Asia’s most trafficked mammals, although protected by international law, because its meat is considered a delicacy in countries such as China, just as its scales are used in traditional medicine.
South China Agricultural University, which led the research, said in a statement on its website that “this latest discovery will be of great significance for the prevention and control of the origin (of the virus).’’
The outbreak, which has killed 636 people in mainland China, is believed to have started in a market in the city of Wuhan, in central Hubei province that also sold live wild animals.
Health experts think it may have originated in bats and then passed to humans, possibly via another species.
China’s official Xinhua news agency reported that the genome sequence of the novel coronavirus strain separated from pangolins in the study was 99% identical to that from infected people.
It added that the research found that pangolins are to be the most likely intermediate host.
Dirk Pfeiffer, professor of veterinary medicine at Hong Kong’s City University, cautioned that the study was still a long way from proving pangolins had transmitted the virus.
“You can only draw more definitive conclusions if you compare prevalence (of the coronavirus) between different species based on representative samples, which these almost certainly are not,’’ he said.
Pfeiffer added that even then, a link to humans via food markets still needed to be established.