Pangolins smuggled into China have been confirmed to contain viruses closely related to the one sweeping the world.
Sale of the animals in wildlife markets should be strictly prohibited to minimise the risk of future outbreaks, says an international team.
Pangolins are the most-commonly illegally trafficked mammal, used both as food and in traditional medicine.
Bats are thought to be the original viral source, with another species playing a role in human transmission.
In a new research paper, published in the journal Nature, researchers say their genetic data suggests “handling these animals requires considerable caution, and that their sale in wet markets should be strictly prohibited.”
Further surveillance on pangolins in the wild in China and Southeast Asia is needed to understand their role in the emergence of coronaviruses and the risk of future transmission to humans, they add.
The ant-devouring scaly mammal, said to be the most widely trafficked mammal in the world, is threatened with extinction. The animal’s scales are in high demand in Asia for use in traditional Chinese medicine, while pangolin meat is considered a delicacy by some.