Studies Suggest Role Of Bats, Snakes In Outbreak Of China Virus

bats

The food market where the deadly coronavirus surfaced offered a range of exotic wildlife for sale, including live foxes, crocodiles, wolf puppies, giant salamanders, snakes, rats, peacocks, porcupines, camel meat and other game.

A new strain of coronavirus that emerged in China may have originated in bats or snakes, according to genetic analysis of the virus that has so far killed 17 people.

The theories are based on examination of the genome sequence of the virus released by authorities in the wake of the outbreak, with two studies pointing to the likely role of bats in the outbreak.

One study, published Tuesday in the journal Science China Life Sciences, which is sponsored by Beijing’s Chinese Academy of Sciences, looked at the relations between the new strain and other viruses.

It found the coronavirus that emerged from China’s Wuhan was closely related to a strain that exists in bats.

“Bats being the native host of the Wuhan CoV (coronavirus) would be the logical and convenient reasoning, though it remains likely there was intermediate host(s) in the transmission cascade from bats to humans,” the researchers from several institutions in China wrote in the paper.

That study did not speculate about which animal could have been an “intermediate host,” but a second study published Wednesday in the Journal of Medical Virology identifies snakes as the possible culprit.

“To search for (a) potential virus reservoir, we have carried out a comprehensive sequence analysis and comparison. Results from our analysis suggest that snake is the most probable wildlife animal reservoir,” the paper says.

The researchers caution that their conclusions require “further validation by experimental studies in animal models”.

Neither study explained how the virus may have been transmitted from animals to humans.

But they could offer clues to Chinese authorities as they hunt for the source of the outbreak that has sickened hundreds of people in the country and has been confirmed as far afield as the United States.

The food market where the deadly virus surfaced offered a range of exotic wildlife for sale, including live foxes, crocodiles, wolf puppies, giant salamanders, snakes, rats, peacocks, porcupines, camel meat and other game.

Gao Fu, director of the Chinese center for disease control and prevention, said in Beijing on Wednesday that authorities believe the virus likely came from “wild animals at the seafood market” though the exact source remains undetermined.

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, was linked to the Chinese consumption of civet meat.

Many exotic species are still widely consumed in China or other Asian countries where they are considered a delicacy — like the civet or some rats or bats — or for purported health benefits unproven by science.

China Shuts Down More Cities In Bid To Contain Deadly Virus

The train station in Huanggang, which has a population of 7.5 million and is 70 kilometers (40 miles) from Wuhan, will be suspended until further notice from midnight — all vehicles will be checked, and bars and cinemas will be closed, said city authorities.

Paramilitary police stand guard at an entrance to the closed Hankou Railway Station in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei Province. A second central Chinese city is being put on lockdown to help control the spread of coronavirus epidemic.

China decided on Thursday to lock down three cities that are home to more than 18 million people in an unprecedented effort to try to contain a deadly new viral illness that has sickened hundreds and spread to other cities and countries in the Lunar New Year travel rush.

Police, SWAT teams and paramilitary troops guarded Wuhan’s train station, where metal barriers blocked the entrances at 10 a.m. sharp (local time). Only travellers holding tickets for the last trains were allowed to enter, with those booked for later trains being turned away.

Normally bustling streets, shopping malls, restaurants and other public spaces in the city of 11 million people were eerily quiet. In addition to the train station, airport, ferry, subway and bus services were also halted.

Similar measures will take effect from Friday in the nearby cities of Huanggang and Ezhou. In Huanggang, theaters, internet cafes and other entertainment centers were also ordered closed.

In Beijing, authorities canceled “major events” indefinitely, including traditional temple fairs that are a staple of holiday celebrations, according to an announcement by the city’s bureau of culture and tourism. It said it was needed to “execute epidemic prevention and control.”

“To my knowledge, trying to contain a city of 11 million people is new to science,” Gauden Galea, the World Health Organization’s representative in China, told The Associated Press.

“It has not been tried before as a public health measure. We cannot at this stage say it will or it will not work.”

The illnesses from a newly identified coronavirus first appeared last month in Wuhan, an industrial and transportation hub in central China’s Hubei province. The vast majority of mainland China’s 571 cases have been in the city.

Other cases have been reported in the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Thailand. One case was confirmed on Thursday in Hong Kong after one was earlier confirmed in Macao. Most cases outside China were people from Wuhan or who had recently traveled there.

A total of 17 people have died, all of them in and around Wuhan. Their average age was 73, with the oldest 89 and the youngest 48.

Images obtained from inside Wuhan following the closure showed long lines and empty shelves at supermarkets, as residents stocked up for what could be weeks of relative isolation. That appeared to be an over-reaction since no restrictions have been placed on trucks carrying supplies into the city, although many Chinese still have strong memories of shortages and privations in the years before the country’s recent economic boom.

Such sweeping measures are typical of China’s authoritarian communist government, although their effectiveness in containing the outbreak remains uncertain.

Local authorities in Wuhan have demanded all residents wear masks in public places and urged government staff to wear them at work and for shopkeepers to post signs for their visitors, Xinhua news agency quoted a government notice as saying.

Xinhua cited the city’s anti-virus task force as saying the measures were taken in an attempt to “effectively cut off the virus spread, resolutely curb the outbreak and guarantee the people’s health and safety.”

The significant increase in illnesses reported just this week comes as millions of Chinese travel for the Lunar New Year, one of the world’s largest annual migrations of people. Chinese are expected to take an estimated 3 billion trips during the 40-day spike in travel.

Analysts have predicted the reported cases will continue to multiply.

“Even if (the number of cases) is in the thousands, this would not surprise us,” the WHO’s Galea said, adding, however, that the number of cases is not an indicator of the outbreak’s severity, so long as the mortality rate remains low.

The coronavirus family includes the common cold as well as viruses that cause more serious illnesses, such as the SARS outbreak that spread from China to more than a dozen countries in 2002-2003 and killed about 800 people, and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome, which developed from camels.

China is keen to avoid repeating mistakes with its handling of SARS. For months, even after the illness had spread around the world, China parked patients in hotels and drove them around in ambulances to conceal the true number of cases and avoid WHO experts.

In the current outbreak, China has been credited with sharing information rapidly, and President Xi Jinping has emphasized that as a priority.

“Party committees, governments, and relevant departments at all levels must put people’s lives and health first,” Xi said Monday. “It is necessary to release epidemic information in a timely manner and deepen international cooperation.”

Health authorities were taking extraordinary measures to prevent additional person-to-person transmissions, placing those suspected to be infected in plastic tubes and wheeled boxes where air passed through filters.

The first cases in the Wuhan outbreak were connected to people who worked at or visited a seafood market, which has since been closed for an investigation. Experts suspect the virus was first transmitted from wild animals but the virus also may be mutating. Mutations can make it deadlier or more contagious.

WHO plans another meeting of scientific experts on Thursday on whether to recommend declaring the outbreak a global health emergency, which it defines as an “extraordinary event” that constitutes a risk to other countries.

Many countries are screening travelers from China for illness.