Did patient zero really catch new Chinese virus by eating infected bat soup? It’s actually perfectly possible
23 January, 2020
Peter Andrews is an Irish science journalist and writer, based in London. He has a background in the life sciences, and graduated from the University of Glasgow with a degree in Genetics
A group of Chinese scientists today reported that the likely source of the deadly 2019‐nCoV virus is snakes, based on genetic analysis. However, grisly images from a Chinese restaurant suggest bats may also be on the menu.
Their findings were fast-tracked to publication yesterday in the Journal of Medical Virology, and report that infected people were exposed to various wildlife species at the market, where live poultry, seafood, bats and snakes among others, were present.
A detailed genetic analysis of 2019‐nCoV revealed that it is a new strain which seems to be a mixture of two other coronaviruses; one of which is from bats and another unknown strain. The group presented evidence that the last place the virus resided before hitting humans was a snake species, based on certain biological markers in the virus’s surface proteins. These proteins are what allow viruses to invade host cells, and the mutated form is allowing 2019‐nCoV to easily attack human cells.
So according to the scientists, at some point a bat virus jumped into snakes, and adapted to its immune system. Later, people at the Wuhan market either handling or eating snake meat became infected. But images surfacing from Wuhan, and released by the Daily Star Online, offer another, even grosser explanation. Could the virus have leapt directly to humans from bats?
Soup du jour
Different cultures eat exotic foods, and Chinese people are well known for having a taste for some meats that might raise eyebrows or even churn stomachs. But bat soup?! Amazingly, it is apparently very popular in China, and considered a delicacy there.
The images have to be seen to be believed — they appear to show the full body of a small black bat, leathery wings and all, perched in a dish of brown liquid and leering like a vampire in disguise. One video shows a girl putting the creature whole into her mouth as she dines with friends. But it looks like the bats may have had the last laugh.
The Chinese outbreak of the SARS virus in the early 2000s was eventually traced back to a colony of horseshoe bats in Yunnan province. Since we know that 2019‐nCoV is genetically closer to SARS than it is to any other virus, it seems probable that bats could be the carriers for this one too. These bats do not appear to have the tell-tale large ears of horseshoe bats, but they could be a closely-related species.