Pangolins, a Food in the East, Could Be the Missing Link in the Coronavirus Epidemic

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Pangolin liberated from smugglers is released back into the wild
Pangolin liberated from a smugglers' boat off Sumatra is released back into the wild Credit: AP

It turns out that the only mammal infested with coronaviruses other than the bat, and sadly now humans too, is the pangolin, a new paper in Nature reported Thursday.

In the west, pangolins are considered to be adorable. In the east, pangolins are considered to be dinner.

Experts testing 18 Malayan pangolins that were smuggled into China found coronaviruses closely related to SARS-CoV-2, the cause of the human planet’s present misery, in five of the small mammals, writes the team, including Yi Guan of the University of Hong Kong and Yan-Ling Hu of Guangxi Medical University, in Nature.

These specific pangolins were not carrying the specific virus causing COVID-19. But the scaly anteaters did have viruses that were extremely close to it, genetically speaking.

Pangolin rescued from smugglers taking it to Malaysia for consumptionCredit: Jefri Tarigan / AP

“Bats are likely reservoir hosts for SARS-CoV-2,” the team writes – referring to the origin. But it has not been proven in the slightest that exposure to bats or eating bat soup caused this pandemic.

“The identity of any intermediate host that might have facilitated transfer to humans is unknown,” the team states. Nor does the pangolin propensity to carry coronaviruses prove that they are the mystery intermediate host of SARS-CoV-2, the cause of COVID-19.

But the findings do prove that pangolins can host similar coronaviruses. Therefore, selling wild ones in the market and eating them exposes their exploiters to risk. “Their sale in wildlife markets should be strictly prohibited to minimize the risk of future virus transmission to humans,” the authors write.

The coronaviruses infesting the Malayan pangolins were identified by metagenomic sequencing as members of two sub-lineages of SARS-CoV-2-related coronaviruses, including one that has marked similarity to SARS-CoV-2 in some aspects.

Credit: Mint Images / AP

Pangolins range from Africa to Asia. The bottom line is that pangolins may have been the origin of the disease rather than bats; they could be the source of future coronaviral horrors; and you shouldn’t pat pangolins, hug them, kiss them or eat them, but settle for appreciating them from a distance.

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