Last updated July 13, 2020 at 11:03 am
According to a new study, the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 may be the result of two or more coronaviruses combining rather than a single coronavirus in bats.
Why This Matters: Finding the source of SARS-CoV-2 means we may be able to prevent future outbreaks.
Thought to be the likely source of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, bats have copped a bit of bad press at the moment.
However, a new UK-led study published in journal Nature Structural & Molecular Biology suggests the SARS-CoV-2 virus, is likely to be the result of two or more coronaviruses combining, rather than having evolved from a single coronavirus in bats.
The paper focuses on the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 – the protein that allows the virus to bind to human cells and cause COVID-19.
“In simple terms, the study compares the binding success of two virus proteins, SARS-CoV-2 and its closest known bat relative, RaTG13, to human cells,” Francesca Di Giallonardo from the Kirby Institute at UNSW Sydney told the AusSMC.
“SARS-CoV-2 binds very well, while the bat virus does not.”
“The results showed that SARS-CoV-2 spike protein has a 1,000-fold higher binding capacity compared to the bat virus spike protein,” she adds. “It is highly unlikely that RaTG13 would be able to bind effectively to a human cell and thus establish an infection.”
Di Giallonardo says it is not surprising that the viruses behaved differently in tests, because they are “genetically different”, which is “to be expected due to natural selection in different hosts”.
Results add to the puzzle of the origins of COVID-19
“This just adds to the puzzle of the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and how it acquired its distinctive and pathogenic features,” he says.
The SARS-CoV-2 spike protein closely resembles a previously-identified pangolin coronavirus spike protein, says Petrovsky. “Without its pangolin-like spike protein…the SARS-CoV-2 virus could not have become a virulent human pathogen,” he adds.
But parts of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein are not like those from pangolins, he said, deepening the mystery of the virus’s origins.
However, Petrovsky points out that the bat virus used in the study was not derived from nature. It “is a conceptual rather than proven real virus, as a virus corresponding to RaTG13 [the bat virus studied] has never been isolated and cloned”.
So, it “may itself be an artefact rather than a real virus, made up of sequences from different but related coronaviruses,” he says.
It’s critical to figure out how SARS-CoV-2 evolved “so that future pandemics with similar viruses can hopefully be prevented”.
You can read more expert comments here.