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Secret cave in China identified as source of Wuhan coronavirus, pangolins maybe contributed

Christian Fernsby |
Fifteen years ago, scientists discovered a cave in southern China that held viruses.

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They were almost identical to the one that has killed nearly 500 people today and the ones that caused the SARS and MERS outbreaks decades ago.

The cave, whose exact location is being kept secret, is inhabited by wild bats that have been found to carry a “rich gene pool of SARS-related coronaviruses,” said Peter Daszak, the president of EcoHealth Alliance, a U.S. nonprofit organization that monitors wildlife diseases that could pose a pandemic risk.

Daszak said that one of the 500 or so virus strains discovered in 2004 is 96 per cent similar to the novel coronavirus that has infected 28,000 people and killed 560 since the outbreak began in December.

The cave was discovered as part of the team’s efforts to track viruses similar to SARS in 2003, after the epidemic had struck, Daszak explained. At the time, people believed civets had caused the outbreak, but Daszak’s team disputed that notion.

A 2019 study warned that bats could cause the next coronavirus epidemic in China, due to their geographic proximity to several urban hotspots. This cave, for example, is located 60 kilometres from the city of Kunming in the Yunnan province of China.

“We found viruses in bats that could infect human cells in a lab,” he said.

Researchers in Guangzhou, China, have suggested that pangolins are the probable animal source of the coronavirus outbreak that has infected more than 30,000 people and is wreaking havoc worldwide.

The South China Agricultural University in Guangzhou says that two of its researchers, Shen Yongyi and Xiao Lihua, have identified the pangolin as the potential source of nCoV-2019 on the basis of a genetic comparison of coronaviruses taken from the animals and from humans infected in the outbreak and other findings. The sequences are 99% similar, the researchers reported at press conference today.

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