Pangolins identified as potential intermediate host of novel coronavirus
Cambridge, UK, 8th February 2020—media in China are reporting the results of a study by South China Agricultural University, who announced their discovery of a 99% genetic match between the new 2019-nCoV virus currently affecting people, mainly in mainland China although with rising cases elsewhere and a strain of the virus found in pangolins.
Human infection with 2019-nCoV has potentially fatal consequences, with currently more than 500 fatalities out of tens of thousands of cases reported globally.
Suspicion as to the source of the outbreak has focussed on a seafood market also illegally selling wildlife in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the 2019-nCoV outbreak.
In response, authorities in China announced on 26th January a temporary ban on all wildlife trade in the country, with immediate effect—a prudent measure to help contain the virus.
Last week, a study published by Nature found the probable origin of the virus in bats. Such a link had previously been found to the viruses behind Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). In the case of SARS, Civets were identified as an intermediate host in the jump of the virus from bats to people.
World Health Organization Experts considered the 2019-nCoV virus had probably made the jump via an unknown animal group before humans could be infected, and today’s announcement suggests that may be pangolins.
Pangolins are widely considered the most widely trafficked mammal in the world. Trade involves all eight species, four of which are native to Africa and four in Asia. With reported steep declines in Asian populations, the animals have increasingly been trafficked from Africa to Asia where they are consumed as food and for their supposed medicinal properties. Pangolin scales in particular are believed by some to treat a range of ailments from problems with lactation in women through to asthma and skin conditions.
TRAFFIC research published in 2017 found an average of 20 tonnes of pangolins and their parts trafficked internationally every year. The study was released in the wake of the world’s largest ever pangolin seizure, when China announced the seizure of 11.9 tonnes of scales from a ship in Shenzen.
Evidence is mounting about the circumstances under which viruses are likely to mutate such that they gain the ability to cross the species barrier into humans—these are basically unsanitary, cramped conditions where animals are kept in close proximity to each other, and also to people. Such conditions are prevalent at poorly-regulated and managed—often by definition, illegal—wildlife markets.
To prevent such occurrences, regulating wildlife markets for disease control is key—obviously early detection is advantageous as is the need to ensure any markets are run to high hygiene standards—which underscores the importance of stopping the illegal trafficking of wildlife and sale at markets where the high-risk conditions are prevalent.
During and in the aftermath of the 2002–2003 SARS outbreak there was greater law enforcement action by the Chinese authorities against wild animal market locations, resulting in large seizures of wildlife products and the prosecution of illegal traders and operators. This led to the closure of wildlife markets and bans on the trade and consumption of wild animals. Consumers also became reluctant to consume wild animals. This undoubtedly helped raise awareness of the risks posed by illegal and/or unsustainable wildlife trade and the potential threats to public health and wildlife species.
TRAFFIC considers efforts to curtail illegal and/or unsustainable trade in wildlife products should be a priority for the global community.
On 16th February 2020, TRAFFIC and 13 other wildlife-focused NGOs signed an open letter to the Prime Minister of Viet Nam, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, calling for immediate action on illegal wildlife trade in light of the spread of the Covid-19 virus. The letter (also sent in Vietnamese) urges the government to close down illegal wildlife markets, strengthen enforcement against illegal wild meat consumption, address risks related to captive-raised wildlife, and increase penalties for wildlife crimes.