When SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19 – surfaced in China and quickly paralyzed the entire world, then-President Donald Trump liked to call it “the Chinese virus. “.
Fast forward two and a half years, and US scientists are warning that a newly discovered virus harbored by Russian horseshoe bats is also capable of infecting humans and evading COVID-19 antibodies and vaccines.
The bat virus, named Khosta-2, is known as sarbecovirus – the same subcategory of coronavirus as SARS-CoV-2 – and it exhibits “troubling traits”, according to a new study published in the journal PLoS Pathogens.
A team led by researchers from the Paul G. Allen School for Global Health at Washington State University (WSU) has found that Khosta-2 can use its advanced proteins to infect human cells like SARS-CoV-2 does. .
“Our research further demonstrates that sarbecoviruses circulating in wildlife outside of Asia – even in places like western Russia where the Khosta-2 virus has been found – also pose a threat to global health and ongoing vaccination campaigns against SARS-CoV-2,” Michael Letko, virologist at WSU and corresponding author of the study, said in a statement.
He said this finding highlights the need to develop new vaccines that not only target known variants of SARS-CoV-2, such as Omicron, but protect against all sarbecoviruses.
“Strange Russian Viruses”
Of the hundreds of sarbecoviruses discovered in recent years, most have been found in Asian bats and are not able to infect human cells.
The Khosta-1 and Khosta-2 viruses were discovered in bats near Russia’s Sochi National Park in 2020, and initially appeared not to pose a threat to humans, the authors say. ‘study.
“Genetically, these weird Russian viruses looked like some of the others that had been discovered elsewhere in the world, but because they didn’t look like SARS-CoV-2, no one thought they were really anything to get too excited about.” , Letko said.
“But when we looked at them more closely, we were really surprised to find that they could infect human cells. That changes our understanding of these viruses a bit, where they come from and which regions are affected.”
Letko and his colleagues determined that Khosta-1 posed a low risk to humans, but Khosta-2 was of greater concern.
In particular, like SARS-CoV-2, Khosta-2 can use its spike protein to infect cells by binding to a receptor protein, called angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2), which is found in all human cells.
The scientists next wanted to know if the virus could escape the immunity offered either by previous coronavirus infections or by COVID-19 vaccines.
Using serum derived from people vaccinated against COVID-19, the team found that Khosta-2 was not neutralized by current vaccines.
They also tested serum from people infected with the Omicron variant, but again the antibodies proved ineffective.
Fortunately, the authors write that the new virus lacks some of the genetic characteristics believed to ‘antagonize’ the immune system and contribute to disease in humans – but there is a risk that Khosta-2 could wreak havoc by recombining with a second virus such as SARS-CoV-2.
“When you see that SARS-2 has this ability to spread from humans and into wildlife, and then there are other viruses like Khosta-2 waiting in these animals with these properties that we really don’t want they have, it sets up this scenario where you keep rolling the dice until they combine to create a potentially riskier virus,” Letko said.
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