A team of researchers from the US who have been studying the origin of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that caused COVID-19, have found it is well-suited to jump from animals to humans thanks to its ability to shapeshift. Scientists from Duke University, Los Alamos National Laboratory, the University of Texas at El Paso and New York University found SARS-CoV-2 the closest relative of the current disease is found in bats.
However, the virus has an ability to exchange critical gene fragments from a coronavirus which infects pangolins to one which can infect humans.
This means it can bind to a host’s cells by making alterations to its genetic material.
In the case of SARS-CoV-2, the ‘key’ to the virus’s ability to change is found on its surface.
Coronaviruses use this protein to attach to cells and infect them, according to the study published in the journal Science Advances.
Feng Gao, MD, professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Duke University School of Medicine, said: “Very much like the original SARS that jumped from bats to civets, or MERS that went from bats to dromedary camels, and then to humans, the progenitor of this pandemic coronavirus underwent evolutionary changes in its genetic material that enabled it to eventually infect humans.”
The team said that by tracing the evolution of the virus, it will make it easier to discover a vaccine.
The viral ancestor of SARS-CoV-2 is most closely related to the virus found in bats, but its binding site is very different, and on its own cannot efficiently infect human cells.
According to the team, SARS-CoV-2 appears to be a hybrid between bat and pangolin viruses to obtain the ‘key’ to infecting humans.
Co-author Xiaojun Li from Duke said: “There are regions of the virus with a very high degree of similarity of amino acid sequences among divergent coronaviruses that infect humans, bats and pangolins, suggesting that these viruses are under similar host selection and may have made the ancestor of SARS-CoV-2 able to readily jump from these animals to humans.”
Elena Giorgi, staff scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, added: “People had already looked at the coronavirus sequences sampled from pangolins that we discuss in our paper, however, the scientific community was still divided on whether they played a role in the evolution of SARS-CoV-2.
“In our study, we demonstrated that indeed SARS-CoV-2 has a rich evolutionary history that included a reshuffling of genetic material between bat and pangolin coronavirus before it acquired its ability to jump to humans.”
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