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Coronavirus: in search of the guilty animal

UNITED STATES (OBSERVATORY NEWS) — On January 7, a few weeks after the onset of the disease in Wuhan, in the center of the country, the Chinese identified a new coronavirus. The guests of the special edition of RFI return to the origin of the epidemic.

More than 31,000 people infected, 636 dead, twenty countries affected, whole cities under quarantine and borders that are closing … More than a month after its appearance in Wuhan, China, researchers from around the world little by little go up the trail of the virus.

The intermediate host, the missing link

“This is a story that repeats itself over what we knew about Sras, explains Professor Arnaud Fontanet, director of the global health department at the Institut Pasteur, since at the start there was a bald- mice – the genome of this new virus is 96% identical to that found in a bat from central China in 2018”.

But this bat would only be a “tank animal”, that is to say that it would have harbored the disease without contracting it. We know, continues Professor Fontanet, that there was what is called an “intermediate host “, an animal which is sold in markets, most probably in the animal markets of Wuhan, from where the epidemic started, since many of the first patients had contact with this animal market.

Prohibit consumption of the suspect animal

The investigation therefore focuses on this market, closed since the start of the epidemic, but the suspect has still not been identified. For SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), it was the palm civet, a small mammal whose meat is highly prized by the Chinese, “sold in these restaurant markets in southeastern China”. For the moment, we do not have the results of the investigation carried out on the market where samples were taken. But we know that traces of the coronavirus have been found on some.

Why is it important? Because it would prevent the re-emergence of the virus once the epidemic is brought under control. Indeed, recalls the epidemiologist of the Institut Pasteur, after the end of the SARS epidemic in 2003, China had banned the sale and consumption of civets, thus eliminating the vector of this severe acute respiratory syndrome. origin of the death of 774 people worldwide in 2002-2003. “If we found the reservoir and the intermediate host that transmitted the virus in the Wuhan market, we could therefore ban its consumption,” he points out.

These zoonotic epidemics [which are transmitted from humans to animals and from animals to humans, note] are nothing new, recalls Frédéric Vagneron, specialist in the history of medicine and infectious diseases. “The development of surveillance networks, in particular virological, has made it possible to see the appearance of these reservoirs of disease which are transmitted from animals to humans. For example, the flu, we know that it is a zoonotic disease from the last third of the 20th century, and since that time, we have an increasingly detailed knowledge of these viruses and these transmissions between animals and men.”

Lost time ?

Like the flu, 2019-nCoV is a pneumonia, but the comparison stops there, because for the moment, there is no vaccine. “There was a technological feat: in less than a month, Chinese researchers have published the complete genome of the virus, which has made it possible to send it to researchers around the world,” said Professor Fontanet. But, at the same time , time was lost .

“The hospitals alerted on the first cases at the beginning of December, the 8th exactly,” says Hermine Roumilhac, journalist for the Chinese editorial office of RFI. Eight doctors warned that a virus was circulating which looked very similar to SARS. But it was immediately stifled, she said, because they were all invited to have tea with the police who ordered them to return to work and be quiet. They also signed a paper stating that they were no longer going to spread so-called fake news. Result: it was not until January 23 that the city of Wuhan was placed in quarantine. But there too, says the journalist, “the news was given hours in advance of this city closure. So, according to the mayor, 5 million people had already left the city, and with them perhaps, many carriers of the virus.”

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