Nairobi, Feb 11 – Researchers in China have suggested that pangolins are the probable intermediate host species for the coronavirus outbreak that has thus far infected more than 42,000 people across mainland China, including over 1,000 fatalities, according to an article published in the science journal Nature.

According to the report, the South China Agricultural University in Guangzhou said that two of its researchers, Shen Yongyi and Xiao Lihua, have identified the pangolin as the potential intermediate host of nCoV-2019 that has been infecting humans on the basis of a genetic comparison of coronaviruses taken from the animals and from humans infected in the outbreak and other findings. The sequences are 99% similar, the researchers reported at a press conference on February 7.

Scientists say that the suggestion, based on genetic analysis, seems plausible but caution that the researchers’ work is yet to be published in full. “This is an extremely interesting observation. Although we need to see more details, it does make sense as there are now some other data emerging that pangolins carry viruses that are closely related to 2019-nCoV,” said Edward Holmes, an evolutionary virologist at the University of Sydney, Australia.

Coronaviruses are known to circulate in mammals and birds, and scientists have already suggested that nCoV-2019 originally came from bats, a proposal based on the similarity of its genetic sequence to those of other known coronaviruses. But the virus was probably transmitted to humans by another animal.

Throughout history, the Chinese have viewed pangolins as an important source of medicine and food. The meat is consumed as a luxury food item, often to show social status and hospitality while the scales, which contain cholesterol, stearic acid, and fatty acid amide compounds are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), combined with other ingredients, ostensibly to promote blood circulation, stimulate lactation, disperse swelling and expel puss.

In 1998, China issued the Wild Animal Protection Law which, according to its Article 22, prohibited the sale and purchase of nationally protected wild animals and their products. An exception was made for those that were to be used for the purposes of scientific research, captive breeding, exhibition and other special cases — the latter including TCM.

Article 22 also prohibited the eating of pangolins but allowed for their use in TCM. This continued the threat of extinction on the Asian populations such that, in 2000, a “zero quota” was put in place for trade in the Asian pangolin species.

In November 2007, China further regulated the use of pangolins with the issuing of ‘A Notice on Enhancing the Protection on Resources of Saiga Antelope, Pangolin and Rare Snake’, as well as the ‘Regulating on their Products for Medicine Use’ requiring pangolin scales only to be used for clinical applications at designated hospitals and for the manufacturing of Chinese patented medicines.

Currently, pangolin scales can only be used in around 700 licensed hospitals and by 209 medical companies who have been approved to produce 66 different kinds of Chinese patented medicine containing pangolin.

After the Notice was issued, the authorities decided to allow a domestic consumption of scales of around 25 tonnes, which would come from verified stockpiles or other legal sources, such as legal imports from African countries. During the period 2008–2015, the average consumption was around 26,600 kg a year.

Despite the trade restrictions, it has been estimated that more than one million pangolins (of both Asian and African species) have been poached and illegally traded globally over the past decade to satisfy demand from consumers in Asia, particularly in China. This makes it the most heavily traded wildlife product in the world — well ahead of elephant ivory and rhino horn.

There are four species of pangolin spread throughout southern, central, and east Africa. While pangolins are found in Kenya and Tanzania, they are most prominent in Uganda – a country reported to be both a source market for pangolin products, as well as a transit route especially for illegal pangolin products from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In recent years, seizures of live pangolins, scales and meat have alerted the Ugandan authorities to the need to crack down on the illegal trade.