Snakes may be the original source of the newly discovered novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) that has triggered an outbreak of a deadly infectious respiratory illness in China, according to a new study.
The finding, published in the Journal of Medical Virology, provides important insights on the potential origins of the most recent outbreak of viral pneumonia in China, which started in the middle of December and now is spreading to Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, and Japan.
“Results derived from our evolutionary analysis suggest for the first time that snake is the most probable wildlife animal reservoir for the 2019-nCoV,” said study researchers from the Wuhan University in China.
“New information obtained from our evolutionary analysis is highly significant for effective control of the outbreak caused by 2019-nCoV-induced pneumonia,” researchers added.
The study said that patients who became infected with the virus–which is a type of virus called a coronavirus and was named 2019-nCoV by the World Health Organisation–were exposed to wildlife animals at a wholesale market, where seafood, poultry, snake, bats, and farm animals were sold.
By conducting a detailed genetic analysis of the virus and comparing it with available genetic information on different viruses from various geographic locations and host species, the investigators concluded that the 2019-nCoV appears to be a virus that formed from a combination of a coronavirus found in bats and another coronavirus of unknown origin.
According to the researchers, the resulting virus developed a mix or “recombination” of a viral protein that recognises and binds to receptors on host cells. Such recognition is key to allowing viruses to enter host cells, which can lead to infection and disease.
Finally, the team uncovered evidence that the 2019-nCoV likely resided in snakes before being transmitted to humans. Recombination within the viral receptor-binding protein may have allowed for cross-species transmission from snake to humans.
Chinese health authorities announced on Thursday that 571 confirmed cases of pneumonia caused by the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) had been reported in 25 provincial-level regions in the country by the end of Wednesday.
A total of 393 suspected cases have been reported, according to the National Health Commission (NHC).
The pneumonia situation had resulted in 17 deaths, all in central China’s Hubei Province. The deaths reported from the disease were aged between 48 and 89, according to the commission.
Overseas, one case has been confirmed in the regions of Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, as well as in the United States, Japan and the Republic of Korea respectively, and three in Thailand.
A total of 5,897 close contacts have been traced, the commission said, adding that among them, 4,928 are under medical observation while 969 others have been discharged.
Although the ultimate control of emerging viral infections requires the discovery and development of effective vaccines and/or antiviral drugs, currently licensed antiviral drugs should be tested against the 2019-nCoV, the study noted.