As the new Coronavirus continues to claim lives, researchers are working in the laboratory to try to trace its origins.
The balance sheet is increasing day by day. The virus that has been raging in China for almost a month has just claimed its 17th victim, while in Geneva the World Health Organization (WHO) is still giving itself some time to declare or not “an emergency of public health of international scope ”.
In the meantime, the city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the epidemic, has just been quarantined by the Chinese authorities to prevent the virus from spreading further. All public transport – trains, planes, buses and metros – were suspended on Thursday and the highways leading to the city were cut.
Several researchers are also working in the laboratory to try to better understand the virus. What is it about ? How is it transmitted? And most importantly, where does it come from? So many questions that will have to be answered if we want to prevent and treat the disease.
A highly transmissible coronavirus
Genetic sequencing initially confirmed that we were dealing with a new type of coronavirus similar to 80% of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) which had killed 774 people worldwide in 2002-2003 (including 349 in China mainland).
The name “coronavirus” comes from its shape, which resembles a crown when imaged by electron microscope. We know that they are transmitted by air or touch and that they mainly infect the respiratory tract of mammals and birds.
Although most coronaviruses cause only mild symptoms, some, such as SARS and MERS, can cause serious damage to the respiratory system, sometimes resulting in death. This new virus – dubbed 2019-nCoV – is in the same vein. That’s why he’s taken very seriously.
Bats to snakes?
We know that the first infected people worked in a local market. In its spans were regularly sold seafood, fish, but also small mammals, birds and reptiles. This suggests that the virus, through genetic mutations, has been transmitted from an animal to a human. But then, what animal?
We know that the SARS and MERS viruses first developed in some bats, which then infected camels, which then infected humans.
For this new epidemic of coronavirus, the eyes naturally turned to the local market. So far, we have never reported a coronavirus infecting aquatic animals. So it’s more likely that the disease will come from another form of life.
By analyzing the virus, the researchers then found that bats, again, could be the cause. But it seems that other animals also served as intermediaries: snakes. Many species of snakes – which hunt bats in the wild – are indeed captured and sold in China to be consumed, either for their flesh, or to fight against certain diseases.
In addition, reports from health authorities confirm that several species of snakes were actually sold in the Wuhan market, which has since closed.
So this is the preferred track for the moment, but other questions are still pending. For example, it is unknown whether this type of virus could adapt to both cold-blooded and warm-blooded hosts.