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Snakes and Bats and People

Snakes could be the animal origin of the recently uncovered coronavirus that is causing a pneumonia-like outbreak, a team of virologists writes at the Conversation.

The outbreak started last month in Wuhan, China, and by sequencing and analyzing patient samples, officials there tied a novel coronavirus to the pneumonia cases. Officials initially said the virus did not appear to be passing from person to person and said many cases appeared to originate at a live animal market. However, Chinese authorities and the World Health Organization now say it appears that the virus, dubbed 2019-nCoV, can be transmitted between people. In a bid to prevent its transmission during the busy Lunar New Year travel time, officials in China have banned travel from Wuhan and other cities in the region, according to the New York Times.

Peking University's Wei Ji and colleagues analyzed these coronavirus samples and compared their sequences to other coronaviruses. As they report in the Journal of Medical Virology, the researchers noted that the outbreak virus appears to be a recombinant between a bat coronavirus and an unknown one, but one that they suspect might typically infect snakes.

In a tweet, Rutgers University's Richard Ebright calls the work "provocative but preliminary."

Similarly, at the Conversation, the University of Pittsburgh's Haitao Guo and Shou-Jiang Gao and Guangxiang Luo from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, all Journal of Medical Virology editors, note the authors need to verify the origin of the virus. This, they acknowledge, may be difficult as the market has been disinfected and shuttered.

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