A look into the search for the origins of COVID-19

Posted at 11:00 AM, Apr 30, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-30 14:11:24-04

MISSOULA — The elephant, the tiger and the rhino are the undisputed "celebrities" of the world's endangered species, but there is a long list.

One of the species most at risk is one that may also be responsible in part for sparking the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Wildlife biologist and KPAX correspondent Tanner Saul has been researching the science used to determine where all this started.

As the coronavirus causes chaos across the globe researchers are eagerly looking to identify the source. COVID-19 is zoonotic so it can jump from animals to humans. With a history of spreading disease, bats have been identified as one of the most likely coronavirus culprits.

According to a study from February 2020, one of the 500 different types of coronaviruses bats normally carry shared 96% of the genetic makeup of the coronavirus now found in humans. Although that seems like a lot it’s probably not – remember, the genetic similarity between a human and a bat is 60%.

Because of what we know about how viruses evolve to become successful hosts in other organisms, bats would most likely have had to transmit the virus to an intermediary host, like a chicken or a goat, before it could infect humans.

Researchers have suggested, on the basis of genetic analyses, that the scaly, ant-eating pangolin is the current prime suspect with data showing they carry viruses that are closely related to COVID-19. Unfortunately, they are also the most heavily trafficked mammal in the world.

The National People’s Congress in China issued a decision “Comprehensively Prohibiting the Illegal Trade of Wild Animals, Eliminating the Bad Habits of Wild Animal Consumption and Protecting the Health and Safety of the People.”

China has had wildlife trading bans on the books for three decades, but those haven’t prevented pangolins from becoming the most trafficked mammal in the world. However, with new word of pangolins possibly being the cause could actually help reduce the illegal trade of pangolins and implement stringent policies to protect native species.