Snakes, Bats, Badgers & Rats: Scientists Suspect New Coronavirus Originated In Animals

As the total number of confirmed coronavirus cases nears 650, scientists inside and outside China have speculated that the Wuhan coronavirus was first passed to humans via snakes, badgers, bats or rats.

Some preliminary research that has been picked up by the Western press, including CNN, claims the virus may have been passed to humans by snakes, with the Chinese krait and the Chinese cobra the primary suspects. The many-banded krait, also known as the Taiwanese krait, and the Chinese krait, is a highly venomous species that dwells across central and southern China, and across Southeast Asia more broadly.

It's also apparently among the species of snakes that are sometimes consumed by humans.

Moreover, scientists have now studied the genetic code of the virus using samples gleaned from patients. Using microscopes and photographs, they determined that the pathogen responsible for this pandemic has been confirmed to be in the same family of viruses that caused SARS and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS-CoV) - the coronavirus family. Viruses in this family have killed hundreds of people across Asia in the past 17 years. Though it hasn't yet ruled on whether the virus is a global pandemic, the WHO has an official name for the new coronavirus: 2019-nCoV.

And most of those viruses have been traced back to animals in a process known as 'Zoonotic transmission'. This happens when viruses undergo a series of mutations while inside their animal hosts, allowing them to infect humans, and then travel from person to person.

Some 'Zoonotic' viruses, like AIDS, are relatively difficult to transmit. Others, like the coronaviruses, are known for spreading easily through the air - though airborne transmission of 2019-nCoV has yet to be confirmed.

Snakes aren't the only suspects. A team of scientists who recently published a paper in the China Science Bulletin hypothesized that the virus may have been transmitted to humans via bats. After this revelation, the Daily Star, a British tabloid, claimed that the "unknown link" between bats and humans may have been the Chinese delicacy 'bat soup'.

As evidence, the tabloid reported that footage of Wuhan residents eating the strange soup had emerged on social media over the past week. In on clip, a girl can be seen eating a bat with a pair of chopsticks during a dinner with friends.

It's unclear exactly how reliable this is, but it's worth mentioning that a grocery store identified as the source of the virus sold many strange animal products, including snakes and possibly bats.

It's also possible that the virus may have originated in the bats before being transferred to snakes, and then on to humans. A reading of the protein codes favored by the new coronavirus found that it was similar to viruses found in birds, snakes, marmots, hedgehogs, manis, bats and humans. Snakes often hunt for bats in the wild, and it's possible that a snake sold in the local seafood market in Wuhan had acquired the virus from its prey, before passing it on to a hungry human.

But those aren't the only theories. According to Reuters, Chinese government medical adviser Zhong Nanshan has also identified badgers and rats as possible culprits.

Symptoms of the pneumonia-like illness include fever, cough and difficulty breathing. So far, there is no vaccine.

Regardless of where it came from, it's becoming increasingly clear that it will be impossible for Chinese health authorities to stop its spread, especially as millions of Chinese are determined to travel during the Lunar New Year holiday.

Infographic: Chinese New Year Travelers Take to the Skies | Statista You will find more infographics at Statista

It's the largest regular human migration, dwarfing the Haff in the number of people who travel every year.

Infographic: The World's Largest Human Migration Is About To Begin | Statista You will find more infographics at Statista

Despite China's attempts to literally seal off the biggest cities in the province where the Wuhan virus was first detected, Global health authorities fear the rate of transmission will explode as millions of Chinese travel at home and abroad during the week-long Lunar New Year holiday, which is set to begin on Saturday.