Researchers find pangolins may be responsible for COVID-19's ability to transfer to humans

Research team analyzes coronavirus genomes, says bats and pangolins may be responsible for outbreak, along with third animal.

Arutz Sheva Staff ,

REUTERS/Prapan Chankaew

COVID-19 may have infected both bats and pangolins - also known as scaly anteaters - before making the jump to humans, researches said Friday.

However, they noted that a third species may also have played a part in the transfer.

The study, published in Science Advances, was conducted by researchers from Duke University, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and elsewhere.

The research team analyzed 43 complete genomes from three strains of coronavirus which infect bats and pangolins and which resemble COVID-19. While a bat coronavirus was more similar to COVID-19 than those that affect pangolins, the pangolin viruses contained genetic material allowing the virus to bind itself to human cells.

Elena Giorgi, a staff scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, said: "In our study, we demonstrated that indeed SARS-CoV-2 has a rich evolutionary history that included a reshuffling of genetic material between bat and pangolin coronavirus before it acquired its ability to jump to humans."

Pangolins are sold as food in several countries, including China, CNN noted.

However, the researchers also noted that the pangolin coronaviruses are "too divergent from SARS-CoV-2 to be its recent progenitors."

They added that "it is also possible that other not yet identified hosts [can be] infected with coronaviruses that can jump to human populations through cross-species transmission."

"If the new SARS-CoV-2 strain did not cause widespread infections in its natural or intermediate hosts, such a strain may never be identified. The close proximity of animals of different species in a wet market setting may increase the potential for cross-species spillover infections, by enabling recombination between more distant coronaviruses and the emergence of recombinants with novel phenotypes.

"While the direct reservoir of SARS-CoV-2 is still being sought, one thing is clear: reducing or eliminating direct human contact with wild animals is critical to preventing new coronavirus zoonosis in the future."

Senior study author Feng Gao, a professor of medicine at Duke University School of Medicine, explained: "Very much like the original SARS that jumped from bats to civets, or MERS that went from bats to dromedary camels, and then to humans, the progenitor of this pandemic coronavirus underwent evolutionary changes in its genetic material that enabled it to eventually infect humans."