Wuhan pneumonia coronavirus has same 'ancestor' as SARS, animals suspected to be source

The seafood market in Wuhan was also known for illegal wildlife transactions, which could act as a breeding ground for new viruses.

Ashley Tan | January 22, 2020, 03:49 PM

There are currently over 400 cases stemming from a new strain of coronavirus, which has since been dubbed the Wuhan pneumonia, in mainland China.

While Singapore has not had a confirmed case of Wuhan pneumonia, the virus has spread to various other countries globally, including South Korea, Thailand, and the United States.

Virus shares links with those in bats

A recent South China Morning Post report revealed that the Wuhan pneumonia's coronavirus shares a common ancestor with that of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

This common ancestor is a virus that can be found in fruit bats. However, it is uncertain if the virus causing the Wuhan pneumonia originated from bats specifically.

The connection between the virus and wild animals was confirmed by director general of China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, Gao Fu, on Jan. 22, 2020.

The situation is similar to SARS, as the coronavirus that caused SARS first originated in horseshoe bats. It then made its way to small mammals like civets, which humans consumed.

The viruses that cause both SARS and the Wuhan pneumonia are zoonotic, which means they can transfer between animals and humans.

However, for the Wuhan pneumonia, there is still an unknown "intermediate" between bats and humans.

This intermediate could potentially be one of the wild animals sold at the seafood market in Wuhan, which Gao believes the virus comes from.

Illegal wildlife trade a breeding ground for viruses

Markets such as those in Wuhan could potentially act as breeding grounds for zoonotic viruses.

According to National Geographic, wild animals kept in crowded and dirty conditions could fall sick and shed virus.

In a media briefing today (Jan. 22), Gao added that the market in Wuhan, which has been shut down since the outbreak, was also known for illegal wildlife transactions.

Authorities have since banned all trading of wildlife in the city, and no poultry is allowed in or out as well.

Although there is currently no known vaccine for the Wuhan pneumonia, illegal wildlife trade could be reduced and better regulated to help prevent the introduction of zoonotic coronaviruses.

Disease ecologist and conservationist at EcoHealth Alliance, Kevin Olival, said:

“One intervention, which is fairly simple, is just reducing the wildlife trade and cleaning up the wildlife markets. Cutting back the wildlife trade has a win-win effect of both protecting species that are harvested from the wild and of reducing spillover of new viruses." 

Similar but not as serious as SARS

Where the Wuhan pneumonia coronavirus previously spread from animals to human, it now seems to be spreading from human to human.

Additionally, the Wuhan pneumonia coronavirus shares about share about 70 to 80 per cent of their genes with SARS, SCMP reports.

While this might stoke fears of a 2020 repeat of the SARS epidemic, China’s leading expert during the SARS outbreak, Zhong Nanshan, has assured that the Wuhan pneumonia is "not as contagious and virulent" as SARS.

Zhong himself will also be heading to the epicentre, Wuhan, to help tackle the outbreak.


Top photo from Reuters