Feb 20, 2020 11:50 PM

Coronavirus Thursday Update: Pangolin Again Linked to Coronavirus; Ministry Expects Consumer Market to Bottom Out by March


China is grappling with an outbreak of infections from a new coronavirus that began in December. Caixin Global will continue covering this story as it develops. Please check back regularly for updates.

Caixin’s coverage of the new coronavirus


Thursday, Feb. 20 11:45 p.m.

Recent research again linked an endangered mammal, the pangolin, to the novel coronavirus that has sickened more than 75,000 people worldwide, as scientists strive to determine the intermediate host of the deadly virus.

A preprint paper published at biology research archive bioRxiv said coronaviruses were found in frozen tissue samples of pangolins that were seized from illegal trade in Southern China. The viruses were a 97% match to the Covid-19 coronavirus according to metagenomic sequencing.

The research paper, published Wednesday, was a joint effort of a group of scientists from the Shantou University in Guangdong, Hong Kong University, and Guangxi Medical University, led by well-known virologist Guan Yi.

Guan came into the spotlight after he issued an early warning in late January that the new virus could end up at least 10 times the scale of the 2003 SARS experience after Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, missed its window for controlling the disease. Guan’s comment sparked heated public debate but proved highly prescient.

While there is general consensus among scientists that the new strain of coronavirus spread from bats to another host before making the jump to humans, the intermediate host has yet to be identified. Previous research suggested snakes as a possible culprit. Earlier this month, a study published by scientists at the South China Agricultural University in Guangdong also linked the pangolin with the new virus based on analysis of genome sequences.

The pangolin, a scaly mammalian anteater, is among the world’s most poached and trafficked mammals, as some believe its scales have medicinal properties.

Pangolin tissue samples studied by Guan’s team came from Malayan pangolins seized by customs officials in Guangzhou between August 2017 and January 2018, according to the paper.

The discovery of multiple lineages of pangolin coronavirus and their similarity to Covid-19 suggests that pangolins should be considered as possible intermediate hosts for this novel human virus and should be removed from wet markets to prevent zoonotic transmission, said the paper.

In other coronavirus related news:

• A central government office led by Premier Li Keqiang called for steady resumption of business activities after nearly a month of disruption due to the outbreak. The office called on local authorities to put in place measures to support business resumption while maintaining control of the disease.

• Governments in Beijing and Jiangsu announced steps to support the film industry, which has been hit hard by the outbreak, as cinemas are closed and film shooting suspended. Beijing authorities pledged to simplify the review process for new productions and to provide subsidies for certain projects.

• China’s Ministry of Commerce said it expected China’s consumer market to bottom out by March as business recovers. Catering, accommodation, tourism, culture and entertainment sectors have been worst hit by the outbreak, said the ministry.

Compiled by Han Wei

Thursday, Feb. 20, 6 p.m.

It has been a busy day with a slew of major developments, especially outside China. The total number of infections in the rest of the world reached 1,082, with a death toll of eight. The global caseload for Covid-19, the range of illnesses caused by the new coronavirus, amounted to 75,761.

First death in South Korea

South Korea reported its first death Thursday along with 53 new infections, bringing the total number to 104, the country’s health ministry said (link in Korean).

South Korean authorities continued to investigate a troubling cluster of infections involving a church in Daegu, where most of the new cases emerged. The mayor has urged the city’s 2.5 million residents to refrain from going outside.

Two Japanese officials infected

Two Japanese officials were found infected (link in Japanese). One official was from the health ministry, while the other was from the Cabinet Secretariat. Both had visited in an official capacity the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which is docked in Japan’s Yokohama port and has seen over 600 infections including two deaths.

To aid Japan in controlling its expanding epidemic, China has donated (link in Chinese) a batch of nucleic acid test kits to Japan.

Iran suffers two deaths

Two people have died in Iran after being diagnosed with the coronavirus in the central city of Qom, marking the first deaths from the disease in the Middle East, the semi-official Mehr News Agency reported Wednesday. The two men had not traveled abroad recently, according to state news agency IRNA.

Iran also reported three more new cases Thursday, bringing the total number of infections to five.

In the Middle East, only the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has confirmed cases of Covid-19 besides Iran. The UAE has reported nine infections, including seven from China, one from the Philippines and one from India. In three cases — all Chinese citizens — the patients have recovered.

In other coronavirus-related news

• On Wednesday, a total of 399 new infections were reported in China — including 349 in Hubei province — dropping below 1,000 for the first time in 24 days. The drop in new infections was due in part to a corrected reduction of 279 previously confirmed cases in Hubei.

The Health Commission of Hubei Province said (link in Chinese) Thursday that the correction was made to comply with the new treatment plan published on Tuesday by the National Health Commission, which was stricter and likely to result in further declines in the number of reported new cases. Hubei’s health authority said that some city-level health bodies had corrected some previously confirmed cases and re-categorized them as suspected cases or other illness.

• Wang Chen, a renowned respiratory expert and vice president of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, told state broadcaster CCTV on Wednesday that outbreaks of Covid-19 could keep occurring in the future in a similar way to seasonal flu.

• China is offering temporary exemptions of companies’ social insurance contributions with a total value expected to reach over 500 billion yuan ($71.2 billion) in a bid to bolster businesses as the coronavirus outbreak weighs on its already slowing economy, an official from the country’s social security ministry said (link in Chinese) at a briefing Thursday.

As a result of cutting companies’ social insurance contributions, the country’s pension funds are expected to suffer a 471.4 billion yuan drop in income, an official of the finance ministry said at the same briefing. However, it will not affect pension payments, he said.

• As of Thursday, over 1.2 billion masks and more than 13 million sets of protective suits have been imported, an official of the commerce ministry said (link in Chinese) at a briefing Thursday.

The epidemic has had the greatest impact on consumer spending in the first quarter of this year, another commerce ministry official said. The market is expected to hit bottom in March, then stabilize and stay in recovery mode in the second quarter, he said.

1 A single Covid-19 case at e-commerce firm Dangdang and three at a Chongqing mineral company led the former to adopt a work-from-home policy and the latter to shut down a plant.

• Fuxing Hospital in Beijing reported a cluster of 34 confirmed infections as of 6 a.m. on Thursday, Li Dongxia, head of the hospital said (link in Chinese).

Compiled by Timmy Shen

Thursday, Feb. 20, noon

• As of the end of Wednesday, China had reported 74,675 Covid-19 infections, according to the latest data (link in Chinese) from the country’s top health body.

The total death toll in China rose by 115 on Wednesday to 2,121. That included 108 new deaths in Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak, and one in Hong Kong.

• On Wednesday, a total of 399 new infections were reported in China — including 349 in Hubei province — dropping below 1,000 for the first time in 24 days and marking the smallest daily increase in 27 days. The drop in new infections was also due in part to a corrected reduction of 279 previously confirmed cases in Hubei.

• As of the end of Wednesday, among the existing 56,303 cases on the Chinese mainland, about 21% (11,864 cases) were in critical condition. The number of suspected cases on the mainland stood at 4,922.

A total of 16,155 people had recovered on the mainland.

• Hong Kong had reported 65 cases, with two deaths and five recoveries, as of the end of Wednesday. Macao had reported 10 infections with six recoveries. Taiwan had reported 24 cases, with one death and two recoveries.

Four new deaths outside China

Two people have died in Iran after being diagnosed with the coronavirus, marking the first deaths from the disease in the Middle East region, the semi-official Mehr News Agency reported Wednesday.

• Japan, which reported two new deaths from the coronavirus on Thursday, has been stormed by criticism as evidence mounts of its mishandling of the epidemic aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in the port city of Yokohama. Since Japan quarantined the ship earlier this month, its number of Covid-19 infections, including hundreds onboard the liner, has soared, surpassing its hardest-hit neighbors in Asia.

• Kang Seung-seok, South Korea’s new consul general in the Hubei capital of Wuhan, arrived in the city from Seoul on early Thursday morning, with a cargo of medical supplies donated by South Korean local governments, companies and the public, according to (link in Chinese) an official media outlet in Hubei.

Compiled by Timmy Shen

Thursday, Feb. 20, 11 a.m.

Japanese officials Thursday reported two deaths among passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise ship that’s docked in Japan’s Yokohama port, marking the first such deaths from a cluster of hundreds of cases of Covid-19 infection on board, NHK reported (link in Japanese). This brought the total death toll in Japan to three.


The number of coronavirus cases on the Diamond Princess, a cruise liner recently quarantined off Japan, climbed by 79 on Wednesday, according to the Japanese health ministry. A total of 621 people on board the ship have been confirmed to be infected with the virus — more than any country aside from China. The Hong Kong government has arranged charter flights to fly its residents on board the ship back to Hong Kong.

Compiled by Timmy Shen

This story was updated with new information.

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