Did the deadly coronavirus in Wuhan come from a snake?

As doctors scramble to treat patients affected by the novel coronavirus from Wuhan, spreading across China and other parts of the world, researchers are also trying to find answers to many questions about the new strain. But a recent genetics study claims that it might have originated from snakes, particularly Chinese krait and the Chinese cobra.
Did the deadly coronavirus in Wuhan come from a snake?

It can be recalled that the first group of patients hospitalized for the deadly infectious respiratory illness were either workers or customers of Wuhan Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market which actually sells everything from seafood to exotic meat such as those from badgers, foxes, donkeys, camels, hedgehogs, bats, bamboo rats, and various species of snakes.

Did the deadly coronavirus in Wuhan come from a snake?
Chinese krait | Photo credit: Thomas Brown

From bats to snakes to humans?

The new virus, scientifically labeled as 2019-nCoV, had a genetic code similar to two bat SARS-like coronavirus samples from China. This initially suggested that like the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), it must have come from bats.


But after running the viral RNA coding sequence of 2019-nCoV spike protein, the geneticists discovered that the virus appears to have mutated before infecting people. This led them to run further bioinformatics analysis to compare the protein codes from coronaviruses found in different animal hosts.

Did the deadly coronavirus in Wuhan come from a snake?
Chinese cobra | Photo credit: Thomas Brown

They discovered that the 2019-nCoV protein codes are most similar to those used in snakes. This is plausible, considering that snakes hunt bats in the wild. They must have acquired the virus from bats. Then, the virus mutated and would later infect humans. However, the geneticists are unable to explain how the virus could adapt to both cold-blooded and warm-blooded hosts.

They believe that the virus was able to ‘hop’ across different species because the genetic recombination enabled 2019-nCoV to change one of its viral proteins that recognizes and binds to receptors on host cells. This lets the virus enter cells even among different hosts.

2019-nCoV Wuhan outbreak
Photo credit: The Straits Times

Further studies needed

However, a number of scientists not involved in the study are questioning the findings, saying that there is no direct evidence showing the virus came from snakes.

The geneticists have to prove their theory by taking samples from the snakes being sold at the market. This proves impossible now because the market has since been shut down following the outbreak. The meats have all been disposed of and the market disinfected. Thus, the scientists could no longer recover samples from the area.

2019-nCoV Wuhan outbreak
Photo credit: Wired

But while the researchers aim to find answers to the origin of the outbreak, more people are interested in studies that would find the cure to the deadly virus outbreak before it wipes out the world’s population.

— Joy Adalia, The Summit Express

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