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Due to the recent COVID-19 pandemic, the outbreak was linked to Sunda pangolins as a potential reservoir for the virus transmission. However, the studies I completed for my PhD over the last few years have recently been used to prove that Wild Sunda Pangolins are not the source of COVID-19, and were subsequently highlighted in the media.

Hours of lab testing and data analysis

After four hard years and countless hours of lab testing and data analysis, I managed to complete the master’s program in December 2020. The study was initially focused on the surveillance of zoonotic diseases and genetic analysis from Sunda pangolins in Malaysia, as the species is classified as critically endangered and considered as the most illegally trafficked wildlife in the world.

After the virus analysis was completed in 2018, the test results for all pangolins were negative for five types of viruses including the coronavirus, which was actually quite depressing – at least for me at that time to conclude the research!

A pangolin is sampled and tested for coronavirus

A pangolin is sampled and tested for coronaviruses by Conservation Medicine staff.

Proof that Sunda pangolins are not the source of COVID-19

However, my results showed solid proof that the wild population of Sunda pangolins has no potential to be reservoirs for COVID-19. The viruses are plausibly transmitted between the pangolins and other animals in the international smuggling chains where they are mixed with different animal species in markets – which is where the virus may have mutated and then crossed over into humans.

"The viruses are plausibly transmitted between the pangolins and other animals in the international smuggling chains where they are mixed with different animal species in markets."

Saving the pangolin from extinction

I am hopeful that pangolin conservationists’ paranoia can now be eased – when it was rumored they were the source of COVID-19, plans were made to slaughter all pangolins in captivity due to the fear of the viruses.

I also hope that my research adds further science-based evidence to the compelling case against illegal wildlife trafficking. This practice should be terminated systematically and publicly, not only to save these endangered animals from extinction, but to protect us humans from falling victim to further zoonotic spillover events.

Pangolins are not the source of COVID-19 and should not be smuggled

Illegally trafficked Pangolins are found at a raid in Indonesia

Further research into pangolin smuggling and habitat loss

Another part of my research was focusing on the microsatellite genetic study of the Sunda pangolins in Malaysia. The test results have showed that the pangolins were restricted to an area and unable to travel to another population to breed which may be due to deforestation and habitat fragmentation. This will increase the inbreeding issue of the species in future.

Another important finding from my research is that microsatellite genetic testing was proved to be very useful, and could be applied to track illegal smuggling routes in the future.

The testing results have showed that some of the animals were being smuggled between Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo. The method can also serve as a reference tool for future forensic investigation. The results have concluded that more conservation planning should be conducted in order to save the species from the brink of extinction.

In future, more research should be conducted for the Sunda pangolins including the serology test for virus analysis, to inform the past history of virus infection and broader genetic study on wild Sunda pangolin populations.

I’m glad that my research not only fulfilled the requirement for my master’s program, it also had a positive impact and hopefully attracted the attention of the public to the issues faced by this precious creature.

Gaining my PhD degree is definitely another important milestone in my life and I’m so grateful for my decision to continue the study years ago.