Virologists doubt the "snake" origin of the Chinese coronavirus

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Virologists doubt the "snake" origin of the Chinese coronavirus
Virologists doubt the "snake" origin of the Chinese coronavirus

The coronavirus, which causes the Chinese viral pneumonia, was 96% similar to the SARS virus carried by bats. This conclusion was reached by specialists from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, who published a preprint of their article on the BioRxiv service. An earlier study, which called snake carriers of the coronavirus, was also criticized by virologists from around the world, who were interviewed by reporters on the Nature website.

An epidemic of an unknown viral pneumonia began in the Chinese city of Wuhan on December 12, 2019. By January 7, Chinese scientists had figured out that the disease was caused by a new type of coronavirus. It was named 2019-nCoV - the new 2019 coronavirus. Single cases of 2019-nCoV infection have been reported in other Asian countries - Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore, as well as in the United States. Now 26 people have died from a new viral pneumonia, more than 800 have become infected with it.

To prevent further cases of disease, scientists are trying to establish how exactly the virus entered the human body. The researchers, whose article was published by the Journal of Medical Virology on Wednesday, January 22, considered snakes, in particular, the Chinese cobra (Naja atra) and the South Chinese multi-lane krait (Bungarus multicinctus), to be the most likely source of viral pneumonia. Wuhan residents may have contracted the coronavirus by purchasing these snakes to eat at the Huanan Seafood Market.

The authors of the new study disagree with the findings of their colleagues. They analyzed lung fluid samples from six patients at several Wuhan hospitals. As a result, it turned out that the RNA of the 2019-nCoV samples from it coincided by 96% with the RNA of the virus, which scientists had previously found in Asian horseshoe bats (Rhinolophus affinis).

In addition, the samples of the Chinese coronavirus were similar - albeit slightly less, 79.5% - to the SARS virus, the epidemic of which began in China in 2002.

Despite the results obtained, Chinese scientists note that the new coronavirus needs to be thoroughly and carefully studied, since experts do not yet know exactly how actively this virus can be transmitted from person to person and how this transmission occurs.

Criticism of the international community

Thus, Chinese scientists do not at all mention snakes as sources of the new coronavirus. Other virologists interviewed by Nature for earlier findings question whether snakes can carry 2019-nCoV.

The most likely candidate for this role is a mammal, said Cui Jie, an employee of the Pasteur Institute in Shanghai. In 2017, he investigated viruses associated with the SARS pathogen carried by bats from a cave in China's Yunnan province.

Jie notes that both the SARS virus and the causative agent of Chinese viral pneumonia belong to the same subgroup - beta-coronaviruses. Studies from 2002-2003 showed that the SARS outbreak was associated only with mammalian vectors. "Certainly 2019-nCoV is carried by mammals," Jie concludes.