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This Scaly Creature Implicated in Virus Spread

Newser — John Johnson

A scaly anteater known as the pangolin is suddenly getting a lot of attention as scientists around the world try to figure out how the coronavirus jumped to humans.

The takeaway from coverage seems to boil down to this: The animals do carry coronaviruses similar to the one responsible for our current pandemic—as a study in Nature Thursday shows—but the evidence isn't strong enough to lay the blame yet.

At the very least, though, scientists are urging that the sale and consumption of pangolins at wildlife markets be stopped, reports National Geographic. Not helping: The BBC notes that pangolins are the "most-commonly illegally trafficked mammal," not only as food but for traditional medicine.

In particular, their scales are in much demand. A look at theories and studies:

  • Starting with bats? The World Health Organization says bats are the mostly likely original source, but the WHO says the virus likely jumped to another species before affecting humans, per National Geographic.
  • Pangolin link: A study Thursday in the American Chemical Society's Journal of Proteome Research suggests that pangolins are indeed the "missing link" in the transmission from bats to humans, per ScienceDaily.
  • Not so fast: It's "doubtful that this species played a role in the outbreak," Peter Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance, which specializes in animal-to-human diseases, tells the New York Times.

He notes the pangolin trade is mostly in dried scales, making it unlikely the virus would survive there. The story notes that another theory in play is that the virus jumped directly from bats to humans.

  • Summing up: "In my opinion, none of the data I have seen so far is suggesting that pangolins did serve as an intermediate host; however, that doesn't mean they didn't serve as an intermediate host," viral disease expert Kristian Andersen tells the Times.
  • To be safe: The scientists behind the new Nature study have some advice.

"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 in the study's abstract.

  • For the record: The outbreak began in Wuhan, China, but there's no evidence that any pangolins were at its live-animal market, writes Caroyn Kormann at the New Yorker.

In fact, it's possible we may never have a definitive answer how the virus jumped to humans. Kormann's piece goes well beyond the pangolin debate, providing background on how such illnesses spread from animals to humans.

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