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Did pangolins transmit coronavirus to humans? Could be, but scientists still not sure

Research so far indicates that the pangolin, a scaly mammal that is illegally traded, was most likely an intermediary between bats and humans, but not the only one.

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Bengaluru: Ever since the novel coronavirus started spreading Covid-19 far and wide, researchers have been scrambling to figure out how this virus was transmitted to humans.

The first known case in a human stemmed from a wet market in Wuhan, China, where not only was fresh meat available for sale, but there was also trade in legal and illegal wild animals. Genetic analysis of the virus, also known as the SARS-CoV-2 due to its similarity to the original Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus, has revealed that the virus originated in bats.

But how it came from bats to humans, whether directly or through an intermediate animal, is yet to be determined. And understanding this is key to figuring out how to control the disease and prevent it.

Initial reports suggested that the virus might have come from bats through snakes, but this was quickly replaced by pangolins. Pangolins are endangered, anteater-like mammals that are trafficked illegally in China due to their use in pseudoscientific traditional medicine.

The pangolin theory took hold for a while, but soon, studies came out showing that the similarities between the novel coronavirus and the viruses found in pangolins’ bodies were not enough to be conclusive. And this week, yet another study came out with even more worrying information about pangolin coronaviruses.

What are these researchers working on exactly to determine this intermediate host?

Also read: Covid-19 conspiracy theories and what China did wrong and what it didn’t

Virus entry mechanism 

The virus enters the body by binding to something called the ACE2 receptor. ACE stands for Angiotensin converting enzyme, and ACE2 is an enzyme that is attached to the cell membranes in our lungs, kidneys, heart, intestines, and arteries. ACE2 is capable of lowering blood pressure and plays a protective role in cardiovascular health.

Previous studies have noted that the SARS-CoV-2 seems to be optimised for binding to ACE2 through a ‘spike protein’. This protein helps with the entry in a manner similar to SARS — both viruses have the same protein.

The SARS and SARS-2 viruses share almost 80 per cent of their genetic material.

The new coronavirus has four kinds of structural proteins: The spike (S) protein, the nucleocapsid (N) protein, the membrane (M) protein, and the envelope (E) protein. The S protein helps the virus’s membrane and the cells to fuse together. This offers promise, as therapies to treat Covid-19 could actually use ACE2 antibodies to block the novel coronavirus entry. Such studies are currently being conducted in many parts of the world.

But these four proteins have been found in many viruses, including HIV and others found in bats.

At the point where the S protein enters a cell, there are amino acids present that are essential to the binding process. The residues of these amino acids can be found in infected cells. Scientist have found that when they compared the new virus to the viruses found in a pangolin, there were only five differences in amino acids. For context, when the same coronavirus is studied in humans and in bats, there are 19 differences.

This was the main evidence that pointed to pangolins as the potential intermediate animal.

Also read: R0 to zoonoses — decoding coronavirus jargon to help you understand the news better

Study of pangolins

Pangolins are the only known mammals with scales. There are eight species, and they are spread throughout Asia and Africa. They are also the most trafficked mammal in the world, with all eight species under threat from poaching and illegal trade. They are hunted for both food as well as for their scales, which are crushed and used in Chinese medicine. The practice of eating exotic food like pangolins is confined to the upper classes of Chinese society.

It was very likely that pangolins were in the wet market that has since been shut down to prevent the spread of the disease. The shutdown of the market had the one unfortunate effect — that researchers cannot actually trace the pangolin that gave it to a human and find out where it got the virus from.

“Indeed, a number of mammalian species were available for purchase in the Huanan seafood market prior to the outbreak. Unfortunately, because the market was cleared soon after the outbreak began, determining the source virus in the animal population from the market is challenging,” researchers write in a new paper.

The researchers analysed samples collected from 18 Malayan pangolins from August 2017-2018, which were confiscated at customs. These samples were of lungs, intestine and blood. Through genetic sequencing, they were able to detect coronaviruses in five pangolins. They found that coronaviruses in pangolins are over 99 per cent similar to the ones in humans.

The researchers further conducted tests on 12 pangolin samples from another batch dated mid-2018, which tested positive.

They also reviewed other tests conducted before the current outbreak. Five pangolin samples obtained through anti-smuggling operations in March 2019 had coronaviruses that were 72 per cent similar to SARS-CoV-2’s genome. Another study from 2019 also studied pangolin lung samples that are now found to be 86 per cent similar to SARS-CoV-2.

Now, pangolin coronaviruses are said to have between 85.5 per cent and 92.4 per cent similarity to SARS-CoV-2’s genome. These viruses can sometimes recombine and produce new viruses, which contain signatures from the parents.

Analysis of bat coronavirus sequences show gene fragments that are found in various SARS and coronaviruses, including the SARS-CoV-2, and the ones found in pangolins.

But all the pangolin viruses lack a certain furin-like feature (another protein), a key identifying feature of the new coronavirus, which it uses to jump to humans and latch on. It is likely that there was yet another intermediate animal that mutated the virus before it jumped to humans; we don’t yet know. But the similarity to pangolin coronaviruses is a huge health risk for the human population.

The authors don’t conclude that the virus causing the Covid-19 pandemic came from pangolins, but they say that since pangolins carry such similar viruses, they are at a risk of transmitting even more viruses to humans.

“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,” they write.

While we wait to find out details about where the virus came from, it is for now, safe to conclude that pangolins were probably involved at some stage of the transfer, and also that pangolins definitely carry viruses that could have the potential to infect us, and should be left a safe distance away from humans.

Also read: Coronavirus should finally make us act on illegal wildlife trade


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  1. Pangolin is suspected of Corona viruses.
    The diet of pangolin is ant and white ant.there fore ants chamical produces are known as formic acid.
    The med which remove the viruses
    Hetrazen tab
    Tab ivermectin 12 mg
    Along with isolation and preacoution
    Such use mask hand wash with senitisore.

  2. All the animals on this Earth are not meant for eating. In Quran ALLAH S.W.T has mentioned some specific ones those are only “halal ones “(allowed to eat) which only need to be consumed by humans. If we break the rules and eat whatever we wish…..then the consequences will be like this…Only Allah can save us all from this Covid -19 virus ….. Let’s all pray God…

  3. Yet another intermediate animal must be either of two… Snakes r pigs…since they hve marketed sale in wuhan wet market too. Im no expert though bt i suspect it mst be either of two dangerous creatures fr human kind.

  4. It’s china’s fault… Bats snakes pangolins etc are not in our food chain… We have eggs fish chicken different types of vegetables to eat
    Also Chinese have controlled corona virus from spreading but in other countries there are thousands of people dying which I’m sure would soon turn into millions

  5. Bro Ravi ,
    True what you are saying
    IAM agreeing with your view
    if don’t wake up even at this time then this is going to ba a ” lost world for human”
    Forget about the man made boundaries it is one Earth and one universe
    We need to save our mother Earth

  6. Lets face it guys…we deserve it…i don’t know what’s gonna happen next but m happy to see animal getting out…and humans dont…even if we overcome this one…we are gonna continue animal slaughter…caging and capturing anyway…bcoz we are the actual virus…and if covid 19 is beating us today…i say its fucking awesome.

  7. Killing these animals is why we are suffering now…killing them has allowed the virus to jump from pangolins to humans

  8. Lesson from the above article, viruses come from animals, when non knows. As a precaution avoid non veg and maintain human health. Self risk is avoided. V r born to live happily. Present day life style is to be changed to save humanity.

  9. First of all, China has to help the world, by providing those methods and medicine to overcome the pandemic Covid-19. How sad, we are losting, our sisters and brothers, simply. Oh, nature mother, forgive us, from now onwards, we, all will care for you.) We don’t supposed to do all those things, that will affect you.

  10. No one has asked China how suddenly Covid has vanished when vaccine, medicine are yet to be founded.

    • And what do you think is the reason for this ? Please read about the measures taken by China to control it and how the government in China works.

  11. Humans are more dangerous virus for earth for every other creature for nature ,mother nature will take revenge in very cruel ways to protect her creation and I believe humnas deserve it.more virus attack ,natural disaster pandemic epidemic all are waiting humans wait . I will also die but I pray mother nature take your ravage we humans don’t deserve to have this beautiful planet creation because we developed SCIENCE and this is the main problem because we are mostly missing SCIENCE To harm nature

  12. Government announced lot but ground reality is different but I want to say for all these only government bodies are not responsible, citizens also have some responsibility towards their society,country unfortunately in our country these kind of things are happening sad

    • How can you say that? They’re such a harmless creature. Ant eaters. It’s our fault that we have broken the rules Mother Nature. We are gifted with many things to eat not f**** wildlife. Ya there are places people do eat snake, frogs even bat. But you know what whenever we cross our line of ecological systems, Mother Nature takes to create the balance by doing this kind of thing. First of all, we really don’t have anything to fight with Mother Nature. On her own court all guilts are punished. Sometimes it would be very devastating, sentence to death then and there. Not like our court systems after doing several crimes still human “us” roam freely. Look at the ISIS terrorist group they have even stopped now everything.
      We human have to learn something, we all do have rights to live and survive. If we have the power to kill, that doesn’t mean that we would go on killing and eating everything and destroying everything what Mother Nature has created. If Nature wants those animals to die, they would die or eaten by other wildlife. That’s how the ecological systems works. This is life cycle.
      Ya it’s true I can’t go on blame them right now, what Chinese people have done, as it would be racism and discrimination to one community. Being human we all are equal, we are all somehow responsible for this disaster. It’s better we learn it from now; i.e. we human have limits and territories. We should remain in there. Don’t harm those harmless creatures.

    • Dude the other option is that we stop endangering the lives of these animals and ourselves for selfish unnecessary demands.

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