Pangolins may be the link which allowed coronavirus to spread from bats to humans, Chinese scientists have claimed.
At least 31,000 people have been infected and 630 killed by the virus, which has spread to two dozen countries.
Researchers at the South China Agricultural University have identified the scaly mammal as a ‘potential intermediate host,’ the institution said in a statement on Friday.
But British academics cautioned that this is only a preliminary investigation and its findings are far from conclusive.
The new virus, which emerged at a live animal market in central China’s Wuhan city late last year, is believed to have originated in bats, but researchers have suggested there could have been an ‘intermediate host’ in the transmission to humans.
After testing more than 1,000 samples from wild animals, scientists from the university found the genome sequences of viruses found on pangolins to be 99 percent identical to those on coronavirus patients, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
The full study has not been released and was only trailed in a university statement, prompting scepticism from UK scientists.
Professor James Wood, head of the Department of Veterinary Medicine, University of Cambridge, said: ‘The evidence for the potential involvement of pangolins in the outbreak has not been published, other than by a university press release.
‘This is not scientific evidence; investigations into animal reservoirs are extremely important, but results must then be published for international scrutiny to allow proper consideration.’
Professor Mark Harris of the University of Leeds weighed in: ‘Although 2019-nCoV (coronavirus) has been shown to be most closely related to coronaviruses isolated from bats, it has been reported that there were no bats in the Hunan Seafood Market where the first cases of 2019-nCoV infection of people occurred.
‘This led scientists to speculate that the virus must have been transmitted to humans via an intermediate animal species.
‘Pangolins are most closely related genetically to carnivores (cats, dogs, etc), and notably the SARS virus was shown to be related to bat coronaviruses but to have infected civet cats as a likely intermediate host before spreading to humans.
‘It will be interesting to see the data that support this claim, which has not as yet been placed in the public domain.’
The pangolin is considered the most trafficked animal on the planet and over one million have been snatched from Asian and African forests in the past decade, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
They are destined for markets in China and Vietnam, where their scales are used 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 in wild animals until the epidemic is under control.
The country has long been accused by conservationists of tolerating a shadowy trade in endangered animals for food or as ingredients in traditional medicines.
The SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus that killed hundreds of 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.