Pangolins were not involved in the transmission of SARS-CoV-2, study suggests

Recent studies have shown that severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) – the virus that causes COVID-19 – could have originated in bats, but it is believed that the virus may have spilled over to humans from another, as yet unknown, intermediate host.

As they are known to be natural hosts of coronaviruses, pangolins were quickly labelled as one of the prime suspects. However, a genetic analysis of a coronavirus found in pangolins carried out at the Guangdong Institute of Applied Biological Resources in China has determined that this is unlikely to be the case.

Pangolins, sometimes known as scaly anteaters, are small to medium sized mammals that are covered in protective scales made of keratin – the same substance found in hair and fingernails. They are found across Africa and Asia and are one of the world’s most trafficked animals thanks to the widespread use of their scales in traditional medicines.

The researchers analysed the whole genome of a coronavirus identified in two groups of sick Malayan pangolins. Their findings suggest that while there are some genetic similarities between the two viruses, it is unlike that SARS-CoV-2 emerged from the pangolin coronavirus.

“Pangolins could be natural hosts of Betacoronaviruses with an unknown potential to infect humans,” the researchers said. “However, our study does not support that SARS-CoV-2 evolved directly from the pangolin-CoV.”

However, the large-scale surveillance of coronaviruses in pangolins could improve our understanding of the spectrum of coronaviruses circulating in the wild, and could help prevent and control emerging infectious diseases, the researchers say.

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