Role of pangolins in the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 and other viruses in humans

Identifying the viral diversity of wild Sunda pangolins, as well as its sympatric wildlife, which might be the reservoir or intermediate hosts for the viruses associated with wild Sunda pangolins.


Collaborators: Tommy Lam (Hong Kong University), Lawrence Alan Bansa (University College Sabah Foundation), Danau Girang Field Centre

Status: Ongoing

The COVID-19 pandemic has been ravaging the world since late 2019. We have known about its severity and lethality, but only little is known about the origin of this viral disease. So, where did this new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2 come from? And how did it start its journey to haunt the human population?

In March 2020, a group of researchers led by Dr Tommy Lam from The University of Hong Kong (HKU) published a study reporting that SARS-CoV-2-related coronaviruses were detected from the confiscated Sunda pangolins (Manis javanica) seized in China during 2017-2019 (Lam et al., 2020). The finding suggested that Sunda pangolins might be the possible hosts for SARS-CoV-2. Therefore, HKU is now collaborating with DGFC to further this research.


Sunda pangolin, M. javanica, also known as Malay pangolin (Order: Pholidota), is one of the eight extant pangolin species that is endemic to Southeast Asia. This scaly anteater is known for being the most trafficked mammal on earth, despite being listed in CITES Appendix I; any trade involving the Sunda pangolin or any of its body parts is prohibited. This animal also has been classified as Critically Endangered in the IUCN RED List of Threatened Species since 2014.

Even though SARS-CoV-2-related coronaviruses were detected in the confiscated Sunda pangolins in southern China, the existence of these viruses in the wild population remains unknown. The wild Sunda pangolin might or might not be these viruses’ natural or intermediate host. Therefore, this collaboration aims to identify the viral diversity (virome) of the wild Sunda pangolins, as well as its sympatric wildlife, primarily the bats (Order: Chiroptera) and other small mammals, which might be the reservoir or intermediate hosts for the viruses associated with the wild Sunda pangolins.

To fulfil the research objectives, biological samples are collected from the wild Sunda pangolins and the sympatric animals alongside the faecal and environmental samples from their sleeping sites for genomic analysis. Camera traps and VHS transmitter tags are used to facilitate the research in identifying more Sunda pangolins’ sleeping sites in their home range as well as their interaction with other wildlife.

This research is anticipated to provide more comprehensive knowledge of the viral disease ecology of this elusive scaly mammal. This research is not aiming to prove that the Sunda pangolin is responsible for the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19, but to provide preliminary information on the possible future zoonotic diseases. With the expected results, we pin one’s hopes on creating awareness to the world that wildlife belongs to the wild and should be removed from the tables and medical prescriptions to prevent any possible zoonotic transmission.


Featured image (top): ©DGFC