A Thai customs official shows a rescued pangolin during a news conference in Bangkok, Thailand, in 2012.     AP
A Thai customs official shows a rescued pangolin during a news conference in Bangkok, Thailand, in 2012. AP

Pangolins 'are a possible carrier' of coronavirus new research shows

By Sheree Bega Time of article published Apr 4, 2020

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Johannesburg - There is evidence that several smuggled Malayan pangolins carry a coronavirus strain related to the current strain of the novel coronavirus outbreak, new research has found.

Pangolins, or scaly anteaters, are the most heavily trafficked mammals in the world, poached for their meat, consumed as a luxury dish in parts of their range, with their scales used in traditional Asian medicine.

In research published in the journal Nature, the authors of the research write how the ongoing outbreak of viral pneumonia in China and beyond is associated with a novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2.

“This outbreak has been tentatively associated with a seafood market in Wuhan, China, where the sale of wild animals may be the source of zoonotic infection.”

Although bats are likely reservoir hosts for SARS-CoV-2, the identity of any intermediate host that might have facilitated transfer to humans is unknown.

“We report the identification of SARS-CoV-2-related coronaviruses in Malayan pangolins seized in anti-smuggling operations in southern China.

“Metagenomic sequencing identified pangolin-associated coronaviruses that belong to two sub-lineages of SARS-CoV-2-related coronaviruses, including one that exhibits strong similarity to SARS-CoV-2 in the receptor-binding domain.

“The discovery of multiple lineages of pangolin coronavirus and their similarity to SARS-CoV-2 suggests that pangolins should be considered as possible hosts in the emergence of novel coronaviruses and should be removed from wet markets to prevent zoonotic transmission,” the researchers state.

Professor Ray Jansen, the chairperson of the African Pangolin Working Group, says there is still no definitive proof pangolins were the intermediate host for the novel coronavirus, but the mammals are a potential carrier.

“The article in Nature is nothing new. It just gives a more concrete explanation of what’s happened in central China. Pangolins are a possible carrier, but still the debate is out there and the proof is not there,” he says.

“So although they only found a very close link with the outer binding sites of the coronavirus in an Asian species of pangolin, the whole genome is yet unproved that the pangolin was the intermediate host.

“Again, it is possible and not impossible but we haven’t with any certainty figured out who the intermediate species of host mammal was.

“There’s no concrete evidence to suggest that the pangolin was indeed the host, however it is still possible.”

In February, China outlawed its wildlife markets.

“We very much welcome the banning of wet meat markets, especially for endangered wildlife,” says Jansen.

“However we are concerned about the farming of wild animals that have somewhat been domesticated and farmed in China. That this is now banned, makes protein unaffordable for the masses of rural and often destitute people.

“A simple ban on everything is somewhat concerning and may move the pangolin trade underground. The banning of wet meat markets does not inhibit or reduce the availability of animal products for traditional cultural use such as pangolin scales.

"We’re still concerned the trade in pangolin scales will go unabated as this is not actually in the wet markets itself, but in other transport routes from Africa into Asia.”

Saturday Star

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