Wuhan Coronavirus May Have Been Transmitted to Humans from Snakes

Medical staff transfer a patient at the Jinyintan hospital, where the patients with pneumonia caused by the new strain of coronavirus are being treated, in Wuhan, Hubei province, China January 20, 2020. REUTERS/Stringer

A new coronavirus originating in Wuhan, China, that has claimed 17 lives may have been transmitted to people from snakes, according to a genetic analysis. The snakes may have caught the virus from bats in the food market in which both animals were sold.

As of 22 January, there are 555 confirmed cases of the infection, which can cause fever, difficulty breathing and pneumonia. To contain the virus, Wuhan has effectively been placed under quarantine, with public transport being temporarily closed, according to reports.

While 444 of the cases have been reported in Wuhan, others have also been confirmed in the surrounding regions of China, with 26 in Guangdong province, 14 in Beijing and 9 in Shanghai. Internationally, confirmed cases have been reported in Thailand, Japan, South Korea and the US. Hundreds more are suspected, and attempts to diagnose these cases are under way.

The source of the infection is suspected to be a food market in Wuhan that was visited by several of those first infected with the virus. The market is known to sell live wild and farmed animals, including marmots, birds, rabbits, bats and snakes.

To find out if the virus might have come from one of these animals, Wei Ji and colleagues at Peking University in China compared the genomes of five samples of the new virus with 217 similar viruses collected from a range of species.

Their analysis suggests that the new virus looks similar to those found in bats, but is most like viruses seen in snakes, genetically speaking. “Results derived from our sequence analysis suggest for the first time that snake is the most likely wildlife animal reservoir,” they wrote.

“We are excited about this new speculation,” says Haitao Guo at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, who reviewed the study. “We need more experimental evidence, but it gives us a clue,” he says.

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SOURCE: New Scientist, Jessica Hamzelou