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Scientists Try To Pinpoint Animal Origins Of COVID-19

People wearing protective masks shopping at a super market in Shenyang in China's northeastern Liaoning province. (AFP via Getty)
People wearing protective masks shopping at a super market in Shenyang in China's northeastern Liaoning province. (AFP via Getty)

More than 60,00 cases of the COVID-2019 have been reported worldwide, but researchers are still in the dark about the origins of the new coronavirus.

They do know one thing — the disease traveled from animals to humans, likely passing through a wildlife market in Wuhan, China.

Disease ecologist and president of EcoHealth Alliance, Peter Daszak, says that more research is needed to pinpoint the precise path of the global outbreak.

"So there’s a clear and present danger from our contact with wildlife. And if that contact is expanding and especially through things like the wildlife trade, it’s bringing us at risk of these pandemics for sure," says Daszak.

A member of the coronavirus family, COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease — meaning it jumped from animals to humans. These viruses often originate in bats, according to Daszak, but may travel through another species on its way to infecting humans.

He and other researchers have found over 500 new coronaviruses in bats over the last 10 years. But Daszak says bats are very rarely found in wildlife markets like the one where the outbreak likely began.

Researchers in China suspect the endangered pangolin may serve as an intermediate host between bats and humans, but Dazsak says that pangolins are also rarely found in wildlife markets. Though it's the world's most trafficked animal, pangolins are typically killed and their scales removed for medicinal use.

"A dead scale off the surface of an animal is unlikely to spread a virus," Daszak says.

In response to the outbreak, the Chinese government shut down the wet market in Wuhan. Dazsak says although it was the right decision, it may pose difficulties for researchers.

Complicating matters even further, the Chinese government announced a crackdown on the wildlife trade more broadly as an attempt to prevent further spread of the virus.

"I think people will be less forward with information about what they're doing in the wildlife trade right now," Daszak says.

It's still important to start working now to locate the virus' animal origins, he adds.

"Even if we clear up the infection in people," Daszack says, farm animals "could still be passing on infection to new cases."

"Somewhere out there in rural China, if we don’t know where that is," he says, "it’s going to be really difficult to stamp out this outbreak ultimately."

Katherine Simpson and Francesca Paris produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Simpson also adapted it for the web.

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