A type of virus distantly related to SARS-CoV-2 and found in horseshoe bat specimens in a European region of Russia is capable of entering human cells using the same technique as the aforementioned coronavirus, which causes COVID-19 . The discovery is published this Thursday in the magazine PLOS Pathogens.
The destruction of nature caused by human activity multiplies new diseases such as COVID-19
It is one of the first findings of this type of virus in bats that live outside of Asia. Although it is resistant to current vaccines, the virus does not trigger a pathology in animals that can be transmitted to humans. Experts warn, however, that it could recombine with other more dangerous viruses that do affect people.
Scientists at Washington State University (WSU) have named this new virus Khosta-2. It is a pathogen of the sarbecovirus type. This group of coronaviruses – so named because under the microscope they show spikes reminiscent of a crown – include SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2, which cause pathologies in humans.
They are viruses that, on occasions, can potentially transfer diseases typical of animals to people. They are then called ‘zoonotic’ diseases and the process by which this occurs is known as ‘zoonosis’ (from the Greek ‘ζώο’ –animal– and ‘νόσος’ –disease–). Pathologies such as COVID-19, monkeypox or rabies, among others, are known examples of zoonotic diseases.
Our results highlight the urgent need to continue developing new vaccines against sarbecovirus that offer greater protection.
Michael Letko, one of the study’s virologists, said in statements collected in a WSU press release that the new virus lacks some of the genes that would make it possible for a disease to pass from animals to humans. “However, there is a risk that Khosta-2 will recombine with a second virus such as SARS-CoV-2,” adds Letko.
The little horseshoe bat (‘Rhinolophus hipposideros’, in its scientific name) is present in large areas of Europe –including Spain– and also in North Africa, the Mediterranean basin and parts of the Middle East and Central Asia. Specifically, the specimens that presented the Khosta-2 virus were captured on the shores of the Black Sea, in the Sochi National Park, Russia.
“Although hundreds of sarbecoviruses have been discovered, mostly in Asian bats, most are not capable of infecting human cells. Khosta-2 has been shown to interact with the same input receptor [en las células] than SARS-CoV-2”, the researchers point out in their study.
SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, infects people using a viral protein that fits, like a key in a lock, into a protein enzyme in human cells, ANG2 or ACE2. Khosta-2 is also capable of employing the same mechanism – the same front door– although so far this potential has only been confirmed in the laboratory. There is no evidence of infection in humans.
Using serum from human populations vaccinated against COVID-19, the team found that Khosta-2 was not neutralized by current vaccines. They also analyzed the serum of people infected with the omicron variant and found that the antibodies were also ineffective. “Our results highlight the urgent need to continue developing new vaccines against sarbecovirus that offer greater protection,” they indicate in the study.
In statements to SMC Spain, the Professor of Genetics at the University of Valencia, Fernando González Candelas, points out that the result is not completely new: “Other coronaviruses have also shown this ability and some of them have been analyzed in this work. The biggest surprise is that this ability is present in a virus that is not closely related to SARS-CoV-2, but belongs to a different lineage. The study highlights the great plasticity of coronaviruses in their ability to bind to different cell receptors.”
“A new wake-up call”
González Candelas considers, however, that this study is a “new wake-up call” about the need to maintain a “close surveillance” in areas of the planet that until now have not been considered to harbor relevant threats.
Also in statements to SMC SpainMaría Iglesias-Caballero, a researcher at the Influenza and Respiratory Virus Reference Laboratory of the National Center for Microbiology-Carlos III Health Institute, considers the fact that manipulated viruses (pseudoviruses) were used in the laboratory to be a “weak point” in the study. and not complete viruses: “Cultivating bat viruses can be very difficult, but it would have been a perfect icing on the cake.”
The expert frames this finding in the so-called ‘One Health’ or ‘One Health’ strategy. This approach was introduced in 2000 within the World Organization for Animal Health to underline the interdependence between animal health, human health and the environment: “Research on potential zoonoses is part of the ‘One Health’ strategy . It can provide knowledge about the biology of the virus and allows us to monitor the potential risks we face.”
Between 2002 and 2004, SARS-CoV caused the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic that left almost 800 dead and more than 8,000 infected. SARS-CoV-2 is the cause of COVID-19, a respiratory disease that since December 2019 has caused 6.5 million deaths worldwide and almost 610 million confirmed infections, according to data from the World Health Organization. Health (WHO).
165 virus species
The 75% of new human diseases arise in the last 40 years have their origin in animals, calculates the World Health Organization. Something that experts relate to the growing human pressure on natural environments.
“Currently, we know of at least 165 species of animal-borne viruses that can also infect humans. These species are added to the 96 viruses that are transmitted mainly or exclusively between humans, some of which also infect other animals, according to our count,” he told the SINC agency in September 2021. Nardus Mollentzeresearcher at the Biodiversity Institute of the University of Glasgow in the United Kingdom.