US, WASHINGTON (ORDO NEWS) — Chinese scientists have discovered coronaviruses very close to the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic in Malaysian pangolins smuggled into China. The results of the study are published in the journal Nature.
Current data indicate that bats were the primary source of SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. But in order for the virus to be transmitted from the bat to humans, an intermediate animal is needed. In previous epidemics caused by SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV coronaviruses, palm civets and dromedaries, respectively, were such intermediate species.
Their coronavirus was 99.8 percent the same as that which infected people.
A transitional animal species in which the SARS-CoV-2 virus has mutated to the “human” variant has not yet been found. The seafood market in Wuhan , which is associated with the outbreak of a new coronavirus infection, has been eliminated, making it difficult to find animal species that carry the coronavirus.
As candidates, the scientists considered the same civet, as well as snakes, but, despite the fact that similar coronaviruses were found in them, the degree of proximity to the human was insufficient. Another possible option is pangolins, which have the same types of coronaviruses as bats.
These rare animals are smuggled into China from Malaysia.
Their meat is considered a delicacy, and shell scales are used in traditional medicine.
Scientists from China, with the assistance of Australian colleagues, analyzed frozen tissue and blood samples of pangolins seized during anti-smuggling operations conducted in southern China in 2017-2019. Samples from 31 animals were studied. Nine of them had coronaviruses.
The results of metagenomic sequencing showed a strong – by 85–92 percent — similarity of the lines of these coronaviruses with SARS-CoV-2, and in one sample, even a similarity was found in the region of the genome encoding the S-protein, which composes the spikes of the virus, giving it the appearance of a corona, and responsible for the penetration of the virus into host cells.
However, all of these viruses lack specific changes in the sequences that are in human SARS-CoV-2, which does not add clarity about the role of pangolins in the transmission of coronavirus to humans.
The authors note that in order to confidently say that it is pangolins that are intermediate hosts that are directly involved in the current outbreak of COVID-19, the degree of similarity of their virus with the human one should be at least 95 percent, but this is not.
But the fact that pangolins are carriers of potentially deadly coronaviruses requires, according to scientists, the authorities to take urgent measures that strictly prohibit the sale of meat and parts of the shell of these animals on the markets.
Scientists also believe that it is necessary to establish constant monitoring of the population of pangolins in the wild in order to understand their role in the emergence of coronaviruses that are potentially capable of infecting humans.
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