A deep dive into the genetics of the novel coronavirus shows it seems to have spent some time infecting both bats and pangolins before it jumped into humans, researchers said Friday.
Pangolins, also known as scaly anteaters, are sold as food in China and have been a prime suspect as a possible source of the pandemic.
Yet the researchers said it’s too soon to blame pangolins for the pandemic and a third animal species may have played host to the virus before it spilled over to people.
What is clear is that the coronavirus has swapped genes repeatedly with similar strains infecting bats, pangolins and a possible third species, a team at Duke University, Los Alamos National Laboratory and elsewhere reported in the journal Science Advances.
What’s also clear is that people need to reduce contact with wild animals that can transmit new infections, they concluded.
The team analyzed 43 complete genomes from three strains of coronaviruses that infect bats and pangolins and that resemble the new Covid-19 virus.
“In our study, we demonstrated that indeed SARS-CoV-2 has a rich evolutionary history that included a reshuffling of genetic material between bat and pangolin coronavirus before it acquired its ability to jump to humans,” said Elena Giorgi, a staff scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory who worked on the study.
But their findings may let pangolins off the hook.
“The currently sampled pangolin coronaviruses are too divergent from SARS-CoV-2 to be its recent progenitors,” the researchers wrote.