Chinese researchers have said that pangolins, scaly mammals that are popular in China for their use in traditional medicine and food, could be a possible intermediate host of the fast-spreading and deadly novel coronavirus or 2019-nCoV.

The study led by the South China Agricultural University found that the genome sequence of the 2019-nCoV isolated from pangolins was 99 percent similar to that separated from infected people, Xinhua news agency reported. Thus, suggesting that the virus behind the outbreak of the disease within the country could have been transmitted from bats to humans via the illegal trafficking of the scaly mammals.

"This latest discovery will be of great significance for the prevention and control of the origin (of the virus)," the university said in a statement on its website.

Representational Picture Wikimedia Commons

Most likely host, says study

The researchers analysed over 1,000 metagenome samples from wild animals. After isolating the coronavirus, its structure was observed with an electron microscope. Post the analysis of the separated strain, they found that pangolins were the "most likely intermediate host," according to Liu Yahong, president of the university.

Using molecular biological detection, it was discovered that the positive rate of Betacoronavirus—one of the four genera of coronaviruses—in pangolins was 70 percent.

The role of pangolin as an intermediate host contended

Representational Picture Wikimedia Commons

However, there is contention over the intermediate hosts among health experts who believe that the virus could have spread to a human through another species. Dirk Pfeiffer, professor of veterinary medicine at Hong Kong's City University, averred that the as far proving that pangolins were the in-between species for the transmission goes, the study was a long way from it.

"You can only draw more definitive conclusions if you compare prevalence (of the coronavirus) between different species based on representative samples, which these almost certainly are not," he was quoted saying by Reuters.

Rising coronavirus deaths and the illegal trafficking of pangolins

According to the latest data by GISAID, the total number of confirmed cases across the world stands at 31,523 while the global death toll is 638. Of these, 31,210 confirmed cases and 636 deaths are from mainland China.

There are eight species of pangolins in the world. Of these, four are found in Asia and the other four in Africa. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), pangolins are the most illegally traded mammals on the planet. They are poached for their flesh, which is considered a delicacy in many parts of the world, including China.

(With inputs from agencies)