Jan. 23 (UPI) — A deadly new virus that has infected hundreds in China may have originated in a snake, a new study claims, as local authorities place a central Chinese city under lockdown to contain it from spreading.
A group of Chinese scientists published their findings Wednesday in the Journal of Medical Virology, stating the newly discovered coronavirus most likely transferred to humans from a snake — specifically, the many-banded Chinese Krait or the Chinese cobra.
The scientists conducted a sequence analysis of the virus isolated from a patient and compared it to other animals, determining the two snakes — which are common in Southeastern China, including in Wuhan — are most likely the source of the disease.
“Our findings suggest that the snake is the most probable wildlife animal reservoir,” the team of scientists wrote in the paper.
The scientists called for further investigation to confirm that snakes serve as reservoirs for the disease but said that their findings are “highly significant for effective control of the outbreak.”
Patients first began falling ill from pneumonia caused by a mysterious new disease last month, which was identified a week later as a coronavirus that the World Health Organization has called 2019-nCoV.
The origin of the disease was traced to a seafood market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan where a variety of live animals were sold including snakes, chickens and bats, among others.
The disease — which is similar to the one behind SARS that killed hundreds in China in the early 2000s — has since jumped borders with cases reported in Japan, Thailand, South Korea, Hong Kong and the United States.
In China, at least 17 people have died and nearly 600 have been infected with the coronavirus.
The seafood market has been closed since Jan. 1 and due to the spread of the disease, Chinese health officials have placed Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, under partial lockdown ahead of the Lunar New Year weekend during which millions of Chinese are expected to criss-cross the country.
The partial lockdown went into effect at 10 a.m. Thursday, grinding all transportation in and out of the city to a stop.
Trains, airplanes, buses, subways and ferries have been grounded and highways around the city have been shut down, South China Morning Post reported.
“People who don’t obey the requirements shall be dealt with by authorities in accordance with their respective duties and laws,” the Wuhan municipal government said in a statement.
Meanwhile, WHO said an emergency committee would reconvene Thursday to decide if the outbreak constitutes “a public health emergency of international concern” after completing its first meeting Wednesday.
“Our team in China working with local experts and officials to investigate the outbreak,” WHO Director-General Tedros Abhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement Wednesday. “We will have much more to say tomorrow.”