The recent coronavirus outbreak has created a sense of panic and alarm among the world during the short time since it surfaced in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019. In the two months that have followed, it has spread to various other countries and has been classified as a global emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The pathogen responsible for the outbreak belongs to a large family called coronaviruses, which includes the viruses that cause severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), as well as those behind the common cold. Both SARS and MERS are classified as zoonotic viral diseases, meaning that the first patients who were infected acquired these viruses directly from animals. This is possible because while in the animal host, the virus had acquired a series of genetic mutations that allowed it to infect and multiply inside humans.
The study of the genetic code of 2019-nCoV revealed that the new virus is most closely related to the two bat SARS-like coronavirus samples from China, initially suggesting that the bat might be the origin of this virus .Further analysis of the sequence, however, suggested that this coronavirus might come from snakes.
Snakes prey on bats and it has been reported that the seafood market in Wuhan sold snakes, raising the possibility that the 2019-nCoV might have jumped from the host species—bats—to snakes and then to humans at the beginning of this outbreak. However, the ability of the virus to adapt to both a cold-blooded and warm-blooded host remains a mystery.
On the contrary, other scientists say there is no proof that viruses such as those behind the outbreak can infect species other than mammals and birds. “Nothing supports snakes being involved,” says David Robertson, a virologist at the University of Glasgow, UK.
More than anything else, this pandemic has provided a stark reminder of the risks involved in the consumption of wild animals.
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