Pangolins can carry coronavirus-related strains, scientists say

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Scientists have identified coronavirus-related strains in Malayan pangolins seized during anti-smuggling operations in southern China.

The international team of experts says that the presence of the SARS-CoV-2-related coronaviruses means that pangolins, a species of scaly anteater, should be viewed as a possible carrier in the ongoing pandemic.

An early, unedited version of the research manuscript has been made available via the journal Nature.

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The coronavirus first emerged in December in the Chinese city of Wuhan. While scientists have not yet worked out how exactly how the novel coronavirus first infected people, there is evidence that it originated in bats, which spread to another animal, possibly a pangolin, at a “wet market” in Wuhan.

A baby Sunda pangolin nicknamed 'Sandshrew' feeds on termites in the woods at Singapore Zoo on June 30, 2017 - file photo.

A baby Sunda pangolin nicknamed 'Sandshrew' feeds on termites in the woods at Singapore Zoo on June 30, 2017 - file photo. (Photo by ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

In addition to selling fresh meat, fish and produce, wet markets typically sell an array of exotic animals and pangolins have already been eyed as a possible host.

The seized Malayan pangolins could shed more light on the potential role of the species in spreading coronavirus.

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“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,” scientists say in the manuscript. “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.”

A very rare close up of a wild Pangolin, taken in the Masai Mara, Kenya

A very rare close up of a wild Pangolin, taken in the Masai Mara, Kenya (iStock)

Experts from Honk Kong University, Shantou University, Beijing University of Chemical Technology, Guangxi Medical University and the University of Sydney participated in the research.

Other organizations have also cited the potential role of pangolins in the coronavirus pandemic.

“A species of Horseshoe Bat is currently the principal suspect,” explained the World Bank in a recent blog post. “The bat likely transmitted the virus to an intermediary host, with an early theory pointing at pangolins, the scaly anteater illegally traded for their meat and scales which are then used for their apparent medicinal value.”

Human contact with the intermediary host facilitated the final leap of the pathogen, the World Bank noted.

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“The potential Pangolin Effect denotes the unavoidable, disproportionate ending of an avoidable, relatively modest beginning: a virus, present on a natural host in the wild, causes a pandemic by taking advantage of a large chain of interconnected events able to spread it globally,” the World Bank added.

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The Malayan pangolin, or Sunda pangolin, is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, as is the Chinese pangolin and the Philippine pangolin. The White-bellied pangolin is listed as endangered on the IUCN’s Red List, while the Temminck’s pangolin and the Black-bellied pangolin are described as vulnerable.

Fox News’ Greg Norman and the Associated Press contributed to this article. Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers