At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic back in early 2020, the outbreak was being linked to Sunda pangolins as a potential reservoir for the SARS-CoV-2 virus. However, the studies I completed for my Masters over the last few years have recently been used to show 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 completed my Master of Science in Medical Science in December 2020. The study focused on the surveillance of zoonotic diseases and genetic analysis of Sunda pangolins in Malaysia, as the species is classified as critically endangered and considered as the most illegally trafficked wild animal in the world. I hoped to find viruses of public health concern in pangolins, as this information could be used to pressure the countries involved in the illegal trade of this amazing animal to do more to stop this trade that is destroying this species.

The results analysis for all 334 pangolins completed in 2018 showed that all five taxa of viruses tested – including coronaviruses like SARS-CoV-1 – were not detected. This was actually quite depressing for me at that time as I began to conclude the research and write my thesis!

A pangolin is sampled and tested for coronavirus

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

No evidence that Sunda pangolins entering the wildlife trade via Malaysia are the source of COVID-19

However, my results provided solid evidence that the wild population of Sunda pangolins were highly unlikely to be reservoirs for SARS-CoV-2. The virus is more likely transmitted between other animals (including humans) and pangolins in the international smuggling chains where they are mixed with different animal species while being smuggled and in the wildlife markets where their journey ends – which is where SARS-CoV-2 possibly mutated and spilled over into humans. As with SARS-CoV-1 in 2003 it will take some time before we have the full story of how this spillover event occurred.

"The virus is more likely transmitted between other animals (including humans) and pangolins in the international smuggling chains, where they are mixed with different animal species whilst in transit and in the wildlife markets where their journey ends."

Saving the pangolin from extinction

I am hopeful that my research and that of others have given some sense of relief to pangolin conservation stakeholders – plans to slaughter pangolins in captivity, when pangolins were rumoured as the reservoir/intermediate host of SARS-CoV-2 due to the fear surrounding COVID-19, have now been dismissed.

I also hope that my research using molecular zoonotic screening and population genetics can add further science-based evidence to the compelling case against illegal wildlife trafficking.

This practice should be carefully terminated, working closely with related stakeholders including those involved in the illegal wildlife trade by addressing their social and economic interests.

Biosecurity at wet markets should also be improved to avoid having different wild animal taxa mixing and having wild animals mixing with farmed animals and people. This will not only help protect pangolins and many other endangered species from extinction by direct exposure to sources of zoonoses or by culling events, but will also protect people and livestock from 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 a microsatellite genetic study, focusing on identifying different individuals and different populations of the Sunda pangolins in Malaysia by screening particular sections of the pangolin genome that are unique to each individual like our fingerprints.

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

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

In the future, more research needs to be conducted for the Sunda pangolins including serology testing to see what viruses these animals are exposed to in the wild, and broader genetic studies on wild Sunda pangolin populations.

I’m glad that my research not only fulfilled the requirement for my Masters program but also had a positive impact and hopefully raised public awareness to the challenges faced by these precious creatures.

Gaining my Masters degree is definitely another important milestone in my life and I’m so grateful for my decision to continue with my studies all those years ago. And yes the next step will be my PhD!