Snakes 'most probable' source of new coronavirus outbreak, study says

Snakes may be a source of the new strain of coronavirus that has sickened 600 worldwide and killed 17, according to a study published in the Journal of Medical Virology.

Coronaviruses cause illness in both people and animals. At times, coronaviruses can evolve and "jump" from animals to humans and then spread via human transmission. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) are two coronaviruses that spread from animals to humans, and this also appears to be the case with the new strain, known as 2019-nCoV.

For the study in the Journal of Medical Virology, researchers analyzed the genetic sequence of 2019-nCoV and compared it with the genetic sequences of more than 200 other coronaviruses.

They found that 2019-nCoV is a mix of two coronaviruses, one known to infect bats and another that has an unknown origin. Further analysis showed that snakes are the "most probable wildlife animal reservoir" for the virus, meaning they are the hosts that the virus infects. Additionally, the new strain has a change in one of its viral proteins, which enables it to enter cells and is the likely reason the virus can jump from snakes to humans.

There are two types of snakes common in the area of China where the outbreak began: the many-banded krait and the Chinese cobra. Snakes were also sold at the animal wholesale market in Wuhan, where initial cases appeared. Many of the people who were first sickened with the virus had reported going to this market.

The virus has now spread to several other countries, including the U.S., where it was confirmed that a Washington state man in his 30s had contracted it.

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