Pangolins may have spread coronavirus to humans: What to know

Ryan W. Miller and Grace Hauck, USA TODAY

A Chinese university says scientists identified the heavily trafficked pangolin as a possible intermediary host of the new coronavirus.

The coronavirus from China is believed to have originated in bats and transferred to humans through some other animal, health officials say. The pangolin may be that key link, researchers at South China Agricultural University said Friday.

"This latest discovery will be of great significance for the prevention and control of the origin of the new coronavirus," South China Agricultural University said in a translated statement.

The research team tested more than 1,000 samples from wild animals and found a 99% match between the genome sequences of viruses found in pangolins and those in human patients, the AFP reported, citing Chinese state media.

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James Wood, a veterinary medicine professor at the University of Cambridge, told the French news agency that more data is needed and showing similarity between the genome sequences alone is "not sufficient."

"You can only draw more definitive conclusions if you compare prevalence (of the coronavirus) between different species based on representative samples, which these almost certainly are not," Dirk Pfeiffer, professor of veterinary medicine at Hong Kong’s City University, told Reuters.

Pangolins, the world's only scaly mammal, have long been valued for their meat, viewed as a delicacy in some Asian countries, and scales, used for traditional medicine, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Recent conservation efforts have worked to protect the eight pangolin species found in Asia and Africa and threatened by illegal international trade. More than 100,000 pangolins are poached every year, according to WildAid, a nonprofit that works on illegal animal trade.

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New coronavirus cases decline

News of the possible pangolin link to the coronavirus outbreak comes as the World Health Organization cautioned Friday against too much optimism after a decline in new cases over recent days.

"The numbers could go up again … but the last two days were showing a declining trend," said WHO's director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

China reported 31,161 cases in mainland China in its update Friday. The rise of 3,143 was the lowest daily increase since at least Tuesday.

According to data collected by Johns Hopkins University as of Friday, 34,887 people have been infected and 724 killed from the outbreak that first appeared late last year. The mortality rate of the virus is 2.1 percent. That compares to a death rate of 9.6 percent for the SARS virus that spread in 2002 and 2003.

The outbreak may have emerged from a market selling seafood and meat in Wuhan. Researchers theorize that someone bought contaminated meat at the market, ate it, got sick and infected others, creating a ripple effect around the world.

However, research in the British medical journal The Lancet suggests the outbreak started earlier than December and casts doubt on the market connection.

While the majority of cases and deaths have been in China, the virus has spread across continents, prompting the WHO to declare a "public health emergency of international concern."

In the United States, 12 people have been infected, per Johns Hopkins. Federal health officials confirmed last week the first U.S. case of person-to-person spread of the virus.

Trump, President Xi talk coronavirus

President Donald Trump tweeted Friday he "had a long and very good conversation by phone with President Xi of China" on the country's response to the coronavirus.

"He will be successful, especially as the weather starts to warm & the virus hopefully becomes weaker, and then gone," Trump tweeted.

China's state media said President Xi Jinping urged the U.S. to “respond reasonably" to the virus outbreak in a phone call with President Donald Trump.

"A people’s war against the virus has been launched," Xi was quoted as saying by broadcaster CCTV, using timeworn communist terminology, according to the Associated Press. "We hope the U.S. side can assess the epidemic in a calm manner and adopt and adjust its response measures in a reasonable way."

Beijing has complained that the U.S. was flying its citizens out of Wuhan but not providing any assistance to China.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement Friday that the U.S. is prepared to spend up to $100 million to assist China and other countries to contain and combat the virus. Pompeo said his department had facilitated the transportation of nearly 17.8 tons of donated medical supplies to China this week.

Hundreds of Americans evacuated from China

Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar speaks during a press briefing on the coronavirus, in the briefing room of the White House, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020, in Washington.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar speaks during a press briefing on the coronavirus, in the briefing room of the White House, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020, in Washington.

The U.S. government has evacuated about 800 Americans from China on five chartered flights, Steve Biegun, Deputy Secretary of State, said at a Friday press conference of the President's Task Force on Coronavirus.

One flight left on Jan. 28, followed by two flights on Feb. 5 and two on Feb. 6, Biegun said.

As of Friday, officials at 11 U.S. airports had screened more than 17,000 passengers for coronavirus and were expected to screen about 4,000 on Friday, according to CDC director Robert Redfield.

The screening process involves more than 1,000 daily flights across 400 carriers originating at 200 airports worldwide, according to Joel Szabat, Assistant Secretary for Aviation and International Affairs. More than 2,000 Americans are in or recently left China, he said.

Of the thousands of confirmed coronavirus cases, 14 locations had reported 69 patients who had not traveled to China, Redfield said. Two of those cases were in the U.S., where two people had passed the virus onto their spouses.

Health and Human Services Sec. Alex Azar said the Chinese government had not accepted the U.S.'s Jan. 6 offer to send scientists to China to assist with containment and learn more about the nature of the virus.

"At this point, it's a decision for the Chinese," Azar said. "We have made the request now for almost a month."

Azar said he remained "optimistic" that the Chinese would accept American scientists.

Doctor who warned of coronavirus dies of virus

Wuhan Central Hospital confirmed early Friday that Li Wenliang, 34, an ophthalmologist at the epicenter of the virus outbreak, died from the virus after contracting it from a patient.

Li had become a national hero for alerting fellow doctors Dec. 30 in an online post about the emergence of a SARS-like illness, warning them to wear protective clothing to avoid infection.

Li, along with seven others in Wuhan, were later arrested by local security police on charges of spreading rumors and forced to sign a document disavowing his statements and agreeing to quit speaking out.

Li's death has triggered a national backlash over freedom of speech and censorship that has overwhelmed official online attempts to contain or remove the expressions of anger.

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Americans trapped on Princess Cruise ship

The number of diagnosed cases of coronavirus on a Princess Cruises ship quarantined off the coast of Yokohoma, Japan, has tripled to 61, according to a report from the cruise line late Thursday.

The Japanese Ministry of Health notified Princess Cruises that an additional 41 people screened aboard the Diamond Princess have tested positive for coronavirus. Eight of those patients that have tested positive are Americans, according to the cruise line. On Wednesday, Princess Cruises confirmed 20 diagnosed cases of coronavirus on the ship, which was already under a 14-day quarantine.

Guests testing positive are expected to be taken to local hospitals immediately.

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Chicago patients discharged from hospital

Two Chicago coronavirus patients – the first U.S. case of person-to-person spread – were discharged from the hospital Friday and placed in home isolation, according to health officials.

The patients were being treated at AMITA Health St. Alexius Medical Center Hoffman Estates and were at home under the guidance of the CDC and the Illinois Department of Public Health, according to AMITA Health spokesperson Olga Solares.

"With it being an uncomfortable situation, the care and the services we’ve received have been great. Everyone’s been very kind and very respectful. This has been the best health care experience we’ve ever had, but we’re definitely looking forward to getting home and getting life back to normal," the patients said in a statement.

The cases sparked panic in Hoffman Estates, a Chicago suburb where protective face masks had been sold out for over a week.

Contributing: Adrianna Rodriguez, Jayme Deerwester, Morgan Hines and Doug Stanglin; The Associated Press

Follow USA TODAY's Ryan Miller and Grace Hauck on Twitter @RyanW_Miller and @grace_hauck.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus: Pangolin may be virus host; WHO says virus numbers drop