The endangered pangolin could also be the link that facilitated the spread of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) across China, Chinese scientists said on Friday.
At least 31,000 people are infected and 630 killed by the virus, which has spread to 2 dozen countries.
Researchers at the South China Agricultural University have identified the scaly mammal as a “potential host,” the university said during a statement, without providing further details.
The new virus, which emerged at a live animal market in central China’s Wuhan city late last year, is believed to possess originated in bats, but researchers have suggested there could have been an “intermediate host” within the transmission to humans.
After testing quite 1,000 samples from wild animals, scientists from the university found the genome sequences of viruses found on pangolins to be 99 percent just like those on coronavirus patients, the official Xinhua press agency reported on Friday.
The pangolin is considered the most trafficked animal on the earth and over a million are snatched from Asian and African forests within the past decade, consistent with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
They are destined for markets in China and Vietnam, where their scales are utilized in traditional medicine – despite having no medical benefits – and their meat is bought on the black market.
China in January ordered a temporary ban on the trade wild animals until the epidemic is under control.
The country has long been accused by conservationists of tolerating a shadowy trade endangered animals for food or as ingredients in traditional medicines.
The SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus that killed many people in China and Hong Kong in 2002-03 also has been traced to wild animals, with scientists saying it likely originated in bats, later reaching humans via civets. -AFP