Amidst unprecedented global lockdowns, freefalling bourses, and a nation missing the point on clapping in the face of the ever-rising number of confirmed cases and death toll, the question is: Who is to blame for the Coronavirus disease, COVID-19?
Is it the virus itself? Not really. The large coronavirus family is just following the evolutionary laws of nature. It is acquiring new members – the “novel” ones – as we do. The method is also age-old and legitimate – mutation. In any case, what is the use of putting the blame on it? Being at the base of evolution, the unicellular ones constitute the real “aatma” – they just don’t die out.
A lot many are blaming the Chinese people and their culinary-culture. And, I subscribe to the view – they eat all types of weird animals. But are not our own food-habits bizarre to some extent? By tradition, we have selected certain poor birds and animals to be dressed to our taste on our dining tables. As the tradition changes and the cultures change, the sacrificial animals change too. There is hardly any science behind. So, isn’t blaming the Chinese rather racial? Beef is no better than the Pangolins, for sure. Only, pangolins are wild and endangered. Then, whom to blame? But, first, we should shift our focus on finding out the primary host.
Which animal is the primary host of Coronavirus?
A mammal is the most likely candidate. Why? – Because SARS and this novel coronavirus are part of a subgroup known as β-coronaviruses and these viruses are found only in the mammals. To be sure, viruses such as these are less likely to infect species other than birds and mammals.
Researchers have found the genetic sequences of viruses isolated from pangolins to be 99% similar to that of the novel coronavirus circulating in humans. Pangolins, as such, are the prime suspect. Pangolins are scaly long-snouted ant-eating mammals (see the picture). China has a huge market for the poor animals for meat. Its meat is a delicacy there – a status symbol! Besides, the traditional Chinese medicines use its scales. It supposedly treats rheumatism. They are as such often smuggled into the country from Sub-Saharan African nations.
Pangolins are the only mammals having scales. They belong to the order Pholidota and family Manidae. Pangolins are also found in India including the forests of Jharkhand. They are the most trafficked mammals in the world. So, are they taking their revenge?
But, wait: take the results with a pinch of salt. The results are not conclusive as researchers haven’t yet completed studying the entire genome. The available study is confined to a specific and crucial site called the receptor-binding domain (RBD). How come, this RBD is crucial? – It allows the coronaviruses to latch on to and enter a cell. Still, even a 99% similarity between the RBDs of the two viruses – one in the pangolins and the other in the humans – is not necessarily enough to link them.
Other researchers have found the closest match to the human coronavirus in the horseshoe bats (Order: Chiroptera, Family: Rhinolophidae, Genus: Rhinolophus) in China’s Yunnan province. If it is true, it is puzzling as we humans don’t really touch bats – this latter assertion is not always true as even the bats are hunted for food and medicinal use in Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere, too. As the only mammal that can fly, bats spread in large numbers over vast geographical areas harbouring diverse pathogens. So to say as the natural reservoir of viruses, bats could have passed the coronavirus to humans. But then, there are key differences between the RBD sites in the two viruses. Hence, most reasonably, the bat coronavirus did not directly infect people. It could have passed onto humans through an intermediate host – pangolins.
Why is it important to find out the host?
Identification of the animal source of the virus is as important as the treatment of the infected populations. Only this identification can help authorities control the current outbreak and gauge its threat, and potentially prevent future epidemics. This will also help the scientists find a medical solution to the recurrences. They will get a chance to study how the host mammals, in the first place, cope with the pathogens.
Why is there so much emphasis on mapping the virus’s genetic sequence?
COVID-19 being a viral disease, the genetic mapping will provide a clue to its true origin, transmission, and containment. Scientists are also keen on finding out if possible any pattern in mutations that occur in the strains of the virus. Clearly, only through the genetic route, we can trace back to the animal source of this novel coronavirus disease.
The present discussion shouldn’t drive people to kill the pangolins en masse as the poor civets were killed after the SARS outbreak. The problem is not the animals; it’s that we exploit them all too often and in the process get in contact with them.
Back to the original question, who is to blame, in the final analysis? Evidently, it’s we the humans. We should leave the poor animals where they belong to. We have encroached upon the natural habitats of bats and other animals. Plus, now due to globalization, there is a huge population always on the run moving fast inter-continently. In a word, we should avoid messing with the ecological balance lest such zoonotic spillover – jumping of pathogens from the wild to the human populations – become routine. Zoonotic spillover can be sudden and pandemic, unlike climate change that is slow and steady.
P.S. – Although no portion here, in particular, has been drawn from the link that follows, we would like you to visit this John Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Centre. Secondly, the credit for the featured image goes to Google and WWF.