Smuggled pangolins have been found to carry viruses closely related to the one sweeping the world.
Scientists say the sale of the animals in wildlife markets should be strictly prohibited to minimise the risk of future outbreaks.
Pangolins are the most-commonly illegally trafficked mammal, used both as food and in traditional medicine.
In research published in the journal Nature, researchers say handling these animals requires “caution”.
And they say further surveillance of wild pangolins is needed to understand their role in the risk of future transmission to humans.
Lead researcher Dr Tommy Lam of The University of Hong Kong said two groups of coronaviruses related to the virus behind the human pandemic have been identified in Malayan pangolins smuggled into China.
“Although their role as the intermediate host of the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak remains to be confirmed, sale of these wild animals in wet markets should be strictly prohibited to avoid future zoonotic [animal to human] transmission,” he told BBC News.
Exactly how the virus jumped from a wild animal, presumably a bat, to another animal and then humans remains a mystery. The horseshoe bat and the pangolin have both been implicated, but the precise sequence of events is unknown.
Finding the virus in smuggled Malayan pangolins raised the question of where they contracted the virus, said Dr Lam. Was it from bats along the trafficking route to China or in their native habitats in Southeast Asia?