Here’s How Scientists Think Coronavirus Spreads from Bats to Humans

Bats carry tons of viruses, but they don't usually get sick from them.

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Bats carry tons of viruses. But scientists think one in particular has recently infected the human population and killed nearly 1,400 people: China’s new coronavirus.

Scientists don’t really know why, but bats usually don’t get sick from the viruses inside them. A recent genetic study, however, found that the coronavirus in bats and the one making humans sick are a 96% match.


In the past, other intermediary animals have effectively passed viruses from bats to humans. For example, humans contracted the SARS coronavirus from civet cats, which caught it from bats. And the MERS coronavirus traveled from bats to camels to humans.

This time Chinese scientists think pangolins could be the middlemen, but their research hasn’t been made public yet. The scaley, armadillo-like creatures, the most trafficked animals in the world, are used in traditional Chinese medicine. It’s possible that pangolins came into contact with bats in markets or other human enclosures, virologists said.

Scientists don’t need to know where the virus came from to develop a vaccine. But identifying the origin can help contain the current outbreak and prevent future ones.

“After the SARS outbreak, the government banned the sale of civet cats because we have now determined that civet cats could lead to more coronavirus exposures,” Arinjay Banerjee, a virologist at McMaster University, said. “So something similar could happen if with 100% confidence we can identify that it was this animal.”

Video edited by Jessica Opon.

Cover image: annick vanderschelden photography/Getty Images