Scientists have urged caution around claims the deadly Coronavirus outbreak in China could have spread from bats to humans through the illegally trafficking of pangolins.
The coronavirus, which is believed to have originated in a fish market in the Chinese city of Wuhan, has now spread to more than 25 countries outside China.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern.
On Thursday, according to the Reuters news agency, the South China Agricultural University identified the pangolin as a “potential intermediate host”. The university said in a statement: “This latest discovery will be of great significance for the prevention and control of the origin (of the virus).”
However, experts have warned more information is needed to be made public before any conclusions can be drawn.
Prof James Wood, Head of Department of Veterinary Medicine, University of Cambridge, said: “The evidence for the potential involvement of pangolins in the outbreak has not been published, other than by a university press release. This is not scientific evidence; investigations into animal reservoirs are extremely important, but results must then be published for international scrutiny to allow proper consideration. Simply reporting detection of viral RNA with sequence similarity of >99% is not sufficient.”
Dr Efstathios Giotis, Research Fellow in Department of Infectious Disease, Imperial College London, said: “All research claims need to be rigorously and independently scrutinised by experts in the subject area to confirm whether they are valid.
He added: “Identifying a 99% identical virus in pangolins suggests that pangolins have an important role in the lifecycle of the virus, presumably as intermediary hosts.”
Pangolins are the world’s only scaly mammals, and prized in Asia for food and medicine. Their scales are made of keratin, which is the same protein found in rhino horn and human fingernails.
They are believed to be one of the world's most trafficked mammal, accounting for as much as 20% of all illegal wildlife trade.
Although protected by international law, illegal trafficking is rife because pangolin meat is considered a delicacy in countries such as China, and its scales are used in traditional medicine, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
Dirk Pfeiffer, professor of veterinary medicine at Hong Kong’s City University, also cautioned that the study was still a long way from proving pangolins had transmitted the virus.
“You can only draw more definitive conclusions if you compare prevalence (of the coronavirus) between different species based on representative samples, which these almost certainly are not,” he said.
Even then, a link to humans via food markets still needs to be established, Pfeiffer added.
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There are at least 320 confirmed cases of coronavirus in more than 25 countries and territories outside mainland China. Two people have died outside of mainland China from the virus -- a 44-year-old Chinese man in the Philippines, and a 39-year-old man in Hong Kong.
The news comes after a third person in the UK was diagnosed with coronavirus. The middle-aged British man is understood to be the first UK national to contract the disease after apparently catching the illness in Singapore.