The Pangolin Possibility

The animal origin of the coronavirus remains a mystery

Yasmin Tayag
Medium Coronavirus Blog
2 min readMar 26, 2020

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The animal origin of the coronavirus is an ongoing mystery. While bats are considered the most likely source of the virus, pangolins — small, scaly anteaters that are illegally trafficked for food and traditional medicine — have also been implicated in the spread of the disease.

Today, the journal Nature published an unedited manuscript from researchers in China that sheds some light on the role of pangolins in the ongoing crisis. (The paper was accepted and published early to disseminate information quickly.)

Pangolins, write the researchers, are capable of carrying viruses that are closely related to SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus behind the Covid-19 pandemic. The researchers detected these closely related viruses in 18 pangolins that had been smuggled into China. They note, however, that the viruses they detected in the pangolins are not similar enough to SARS-CoV-2 to definitively say that the animals are the elusive “intermediate hosts” in this outbreak.

Often when a virus spreads from animals to humans, it first jumps from the original animal to another species before finally being transmitted to humans. That animal go-between is the “intermediate host.” This paper can’t confirm that pangolins are intermediate hosts in the current outbreak — but it also doesn’t rule out that possibility.

So far, bats and pangolins are the only mammals known to be infected with a coronavirus related to SARS-CoV-2. It’s important that scientists identify all of the virus’s potential animal hosts to avoid future outbreaks — and tamp down on the illegal wildlife trafficking that may have facilitated the virus’s spillover. The data “strongly suggests that handling these animals requires considerable caution,” the authors of the new paper write, “and that their sale in wet markets should be strictly prohibited.”

In an insightful New York Times essay decrying the futility of wildlife trading bans in China, Chinese journalist Wufei Yu described the paradoxical thinking that allowed pangolin trafficking to continue. Some believe pangolin scales can cure disease because that belief is rooted in traditional Chinese medicine, he wrote, “Except that our ancestors actually said otherwise.” He had found 1,400-year-old Chinese texts warning not to eat pangolin, “because it may trigger them and harm us.”

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Yasmin Tayag
Medium Coronavirus Blog

Editor, Medium Coronavirus Blog. Senior editor at Future Human by OneZero. Previously: science at Inverse, genetics at NYU.