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Infectious disease


Novel coronavirus thought to have jumped to humans via pangolins

Trafficked scaly anteaters found to carry coronaviruses related to SARS-CoV-2

by Laura Howes
April 3, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 13


A photo of a pangolin.
Credit: Shutterstock
Solitary and endangered, these scaly anteaters might have been a stepping stone for the virus that became SARS-CoV-2.

Since the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, was first detected late last year, researchers have been trying to understand how the virus passed to humans in the first place. Although bats are thought to be the origin of the virus, bat coronaviruses differ from SARS-CoV-2 in some key ways. In particular, the spike proteins, which bind to receptors on the surface of cells to gain access, are different in the two viruses. Authorities in China quickly shut down a market linked to the outbreak. Closing the market prevented researchers from examining the animals sold there for coronaviruses. So a team led by Yan-Ling Hu of Guangxi Medical University and Yi Guan of the University of Hong Kong turned to a small number of pangolins—also called scaly anteaters—seized in antismuggling raids in 2017 and 2018. The team found that coronavirus RNA isolated from those pangolins encodes spike proteins that are closely related to those of SARS-CoV-2 (Nature 2020, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2169-0). That doesn’t prove that the new coronavirus passed through pangolins. But to prevent another virus making the same leap, markets shouldn’t sell pangolins, the researchers say.

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