China coronavirus may have come from a snake, researchers say


The novel coronavirus in China that has killed 17 people and infected hundreds more might have made its first jump to a human from a snake, according to a study by a group of Chinese scientists, while a Chinese professor in Germany has forecast that the epidemic will reach its peak in March.

If the snake claim is substantiated - other researchers in China have challenged it - it would change the scientific world's understanding of the transmission and mutation of Sars-like pathogens, as it would be the first time a reptile had been found to be the reservoir.

With the number of infections and deaths spiking in recent days, determining the source of the virus and its evolutionary history is key to containing its spread.

In the study, published in the Journal of Medical Virology on Wednesday, a joint team from Beijing, Nanning, Ningbo and Wuhan reconstructed the virus's physical structure using published data.

They discovered it had a mysterious spike protein. This protein is usually used by a virus to recognise and hook on to the surface of a host cell, but its pattern in the new virus has never been seen before.

Earlier studies found that the Wuhan and Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) viruses shared a common ancestor that could be traced to a betacoronavirus that had been found in bats.

However, that virus could not be transmitted to humans without an intermediate.

The unknown protein contained an important lead as it could be the result of a genetic recombination that took place across different species, according to the research team, which was led by Wei Ji from the School of Basic Medical Sciences at Peking University's Health Science Centre.

The researchers compared the unique genetic coding pattern of the virus to those of a wide range of animals.

And they discovered that the closest matches were with two snake species - the Many-banded krait and the Chinese cobra - both of which are commonly found in China, from central Hubei province to Hong Kong in the south.

The snakes scored 12 and 14 points, respectively, on an index measuring the genetic distance from the virus, the researchers said. By comparison, the nearest mammal to a match - the marmot - scored almost twice as high, suggesting a much lower probability.

"Our findings suggest that the snake is the most probable wildlife animal reservoir," the team said in their paper.

Snakes and other wild animals are commonly eaten in China.

Source: South China Morning Post

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