Wuhan outbreak: Humans may have picked up the deadly virus from snakes in a local live animal market

Evidence suggests the virus may have formed as a result of viruses from bats and snakes combining, which can happen when two species of animals are kept in close quarters


                            Wuhan outbreak: Humans may have picked up the deadly virus from snakes in a local live animal market
Beijing Capital International Airport (AP)

Scientists may have tracked down the source of the mysterious and deadly Wuhan coronavirus - snakes. The infected snakes may have come from Wuhan's wholesale fish and live animal market.

A team of scientists scanned the genetic material of the Wuhan coronavirus to look for clues that could direct them towards its original source. The evidence pointed toward snakes, more specifically, the Chinese krait and the Chinese cobra.

“We are excited about this new speculation. We need more experimental evidence, but it gives us a clue,” Haitao Guo at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, who reviewed the study, told NewScientist. The pathogen is related to SARS and MERS virus, all of them belong to a family called coronaviruses -- a virus known to circulate among camels, cats, and bats.

The first group of patients hospitalized due to the Wuhan virus were workers or customers at a local seafood wholesale market which also sold processed meats and live consumable animals, say experts. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Liu Dawei, File)

Most viral outbreaks, including the Wuhan virus pandemic, originated in animals before spreading to humans. "The first group of patients hospitalized due to the Wuhan virus were workers or customers at a local seafood wholesale market which also sold processed meats and live consumable animals including poultry, donkeys, sheep, pigs, camels, foxes, badgers, bamboo rats, hedgehogs and reptiles," wrote experts in The Conversation.

To identify the animal harboring the virus, researchers from Peking University, China compared the genome of the new virus with over 200 other related coronavirus collected from different animals from around the world. According to the evidence, the new virus may have come from snakes, though it also looks similar to those found in bats. 

The virus may have formed as a result of viruses from bats and snakes combining, which can happen when two species of animal are kept in close quarters, food and wet markets for instance, Peter Rabinowitz at the University of Washington in Seattle, told NewScientist. “When you bring animals together in these unnatural situations, you have the risk of human diseases emerging. If the animals are housed in bad conditions under a lot of stress, it might create a better opportunity for them to shed virus and to be sick,” Kevin Olival, a disease ecologist and conservationist at the EcoHealth Alliance, told National Geographic.

The team believes further studies can reveal more information on the virus that has already spread to Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the US. This penumonia-causing virus has infected more than 544 people, killing 17 others. Taking stock of the situation, the Chinese disease-control authorities in Wuhan have issued an order to shut down the city's public transportation, including buses, trains, ferries and the airport.  

The World Health Organization (WHO) has put off its decision on declaring China's coronavirus a global health emergency until Thursday, January 23. "The decision about whether or not to declare a public health emergency of international concern is one I take extremely seriously and one I am only prepared to make with appropriate consideration of all the evidence," Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of WHO, said in a news conference Wednesday, January 22.

The study has been published in the Journal of Medical Virology.