Since the first case of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, was reported on December 31, 2019, scientists around the globe have been working to understand how the virus jumped from animals into humans, and from which animal it came.
Determining the origins of the virus is of critical importance in the development of a vaccine, and understanding its evolutionary pathway will not only help us to combat the current pandemic but also prevent future outbreaks from other coronaviruses in other species .
Pangolins are the Main Suspect
The coronavirus that has caused the pandemic, SARS-CoV-2, is what is known as a zoonotic disease. This means that it originated in animals, but then jumped into humans. Zoonotic diseases are actually very common, and scientists estimate that about 60 percent of known infectious diseases in people originated in animals .
The consensus among scientists is that the virus originated in horseshoe bats, however, based on knowledge of earlier zoonotic coronaviruses, it is unlikely that the virus was transmitted directly from bats to humans. This means that there has to have been an “intermediate host”.
In the case of COVID-19, scientists believe that bats transmitted the virus to another animal and that intermediate host then passed it on to humans. Early research pointed to snakes as the main suspect, but many in the scientific community doubted this theory because there is no history of a virus jumping from a cold-blooded animal into humans.
This early research also determined that snakes were the most likely hosts based on genetic factors that made them more likely to carry the SARS-CoV-2 virus, however it was never verified.
Recently, a team of researchers analyzed those original findings and found them to be incorrect, effectively scratching snakes off the list of potential suspects. Instead, they turned their attention to a different animal: the Malayan pangolin.
The Malayan pangolin is also known as the “scaly anteater”, and is the only known mammal with scales in Asia and Africa. The researchers found that the genetic sequence of the coronavirus taken from lung samples of infected pangolins was 91 percent similar to that of the COVID-19 virus that is currently infecting humans .
These researchers are not alone. Other groups have also found evidence of pangolins who have been infected with coronaviruses that are very similar to the SARS-CoV-2 virus . However, it should be noted that this study is in preprint, and has to be peer-reviewed.
Other Animals are Still a Possibility
While pangolins are now the top suspect, scientists still are not ruling out other animals as possibilities. There is some research to suggest that pangolins may actually be a natural host, rather than an intermediate, and therefore were not responsible for transmitting the virus to humans .
According to a different group of researchers, coronaviruses are known to have multiple intermediate hosts. For example, the palm civet was the most common intermediate host during the SARS pandemic of 2003, however, the virus also used raccoon dogs and ferret badgers to jump to humans.
For this reason, there is still a strong possibility that other animals could have played a role in transmitting the COVID-19 virus into humans .
A New Theory: The Virus Started in a Lab
Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been various groups and individuals who have questioned whether the virus occurred naturally or if it was created in a lab intentionally. While this has largely been refuted, some US experts are looking into the possibility.
While the United States does not believe that the virus was created as a type of biological weapon, intelligence officials are investigating the theory that the virus was created in a lab in Wuhan, and then accidentally released to the public.
Mark Milley, joint Chief of Staff chairman, has said that US intelligence is taking a hard look at the possibility.
“I would just say, at this point, it’s inconclusive although the weight of evidence seems to indicate natural (origin). But we don’t know for certain,” he said .
The Chinese Foreign Ministry is refuting the accusations, pointing to the position of major public health officials for support.
“The head of the World Health Organization has repeatedly stated that there hasn’t been any evidence pointing to the virus being lab-created,” said spokesperson Zhao Lijian. “Many renowned medical experts around the world have also described theories such as ‘lab leaks’ as lacking any scientific proof.” 
The White House has been critical of China since the pandemic began because they were slow to release information to the rest of the world at the onset. Many also believe that the theory is being pushed by Republicans in an effort to deflect criticism for the way the president has handled the pandemic in the United States.
Some US officials, however, have cautioned people from spreading this rumor, stating that this kind of theory gets suggested every time there is an outbreak of any kind .
There are Still Many Question Marks
Despite the fact that scientists have been working tirelessly to learn everything they can about the novel coronavirus, there are still many unanswered questions. We may never know exactly how the outbreak got started, however, the more we know, the better our chances will be at preventing further pandemics in the future.
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