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Pangolins are possible coronavirus hosts, Chinese scientists say

The elephant, the tiger and the rhino are the undisputed "celebrities" of the world's endangered species, but they are by no means the animals most at risk of extinction
Meet the endangered pangolin 00:27

Pangolins are possible hosts of coronavirus, a study led by South China Agricultural University has found.

Experts believe the outbreak originated at wild animal markets in Wuhan, China. After analyzing more than 1,000 samples, scientists found that the genome sequence of the virus in pangolins was 99% identical to that from infected people. That means pangolins are the most likely intermediate host of coronavirus, Liu Yahong, president of the university, said, according to state media

Pangolins, which look like scaly anteaters, are considered a delicacy in China and other countries, and pangolin scales are used in traditional medicine. 

A pangolin.
A pangolin, or scaly anteater. Stephen Hogg/AP Photo/World Wildlife Fund-Malaysia

Pangolins are protected by international law, but they are still one of Asia's most trafficked mammals. More than one million have been poached in the past decade, putting the species' survival at risk, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. In 2016, a ban was placed on the trade of pangolins, but sale of the animals appears to persist in parts of Asia and Africa.

The new information about pangolins as a potential intermediate host of the novel coronavirus will aid in the prevention and control of the virus, Liu said.

Health experts believed the new strain of coronavirus possibly originated with bats before jumping to the human population, perhaps through an intermediary like pangolins. 

Infectious disease expert Dr. Ian Lipkin told CBS News on Wednesday that similar viruses will continue to pop up "every couple of years" as long as the so-called wet markets selling a multitude of animal species remain in business. 

"I want the wild animal markets closed," Lipkin said. 

But that step alone might not be sufficient. "While closing wildlife markets could have a major impact, bans alone will not stop the illegal wildlife trade if demand persists," The World Wildlife Fund said in a statement. "This health crisis must serve as a wake-up call for the need to end unsustainable use of endangered animals and their parts, as exotic pets, for food consumption and for their perceived medicinal value."

The death toll from coronavirus has risen to more than 630, with all but two of the deaths in mainland China. More than 31,000 people have been infected with the virus worldwide, the vast majority of them in China.  

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