WEDNESDAY, February 10, 2021 (HealthDay News) – Could it be that a strange-looking creature known as the pangolin was the conduit through which the new coronavirus jumped to humans and instigated an international pandemic?
New research suggests the theory is plausible.
Pangolins are sold for food at live animal “wet markets” in China – facilities that have long been believed to be the ground zero for the spread of viruses of animal origin to humans. Since the start of the pandemic, experts around the world have called for the closure of these markets in China and elsewhere.
Many people believe that bats may have been the original source of the novel coronavirus. In the new study, the researchers compared the structures of advanced proteins found on SARS-CoV-2 with the most similar bat coronavirus and also with coronavirus isolated from Malaysian pangolins which had been seized by authorities after being smuggled into China.
“By testing whether the spike protein of a given virus can bind to cell receptors of different species, we are able to see if, in theory, the virus could infect that species,” explained the co-author of the Antoni Wrobel study. He is a postdoctoral fellow at the Laboratory for Structural Biology of Pathological Processes at the Francis Crick Institute, London.
“What’s important here, we’ve shown two key things. First, that this bat virus would be unlikely to infect pangolins. And second, that a pangolin virus could potentially infect humans,” said Wrobel in a press release from the institute.
Scientists used a technology called cryoelectron microscopy to see the spike protein of the pangolin coronavirus in great detail. Some parts of the virus spike were quite similar to the human version, but others differed.
Although research has found that the bat coronavirus, known as RaTG13, cannot bind to receptors in humans or pangolins, and that the pangolin coronavirus is able to bind to pangolin and at human receptors, it still does not confirm whether the pangolin virus was a part of the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 into humans.
But it does support possible scenarios of how that might happen, the researchers said.
RaTG13 or a similar bat coronavirus may have fused with a coronavirus in a species other than a pangolin. The possibilities also include that it is from an unknown bat coronavirus that could infect pangolins and then travel to humans, the study authors noted.
Study co-author Donald Benton said: “We still don’t have any evidence to confirm the evolutionary path of SARS-CoV-2 or to definitively prove that this virus passed from pangolins to humans. However, we have shown that a pangolin virus could potentially jump to humans, so we call for caution in any contact with this species and an end to illegal smuggling and trade in pangolins to protect against this risk. Benton is a postdoctoral fellow in the Structural Biology of Pathological Processes Laboratory.
The team continues to research peaks in SARS-CoV-2 and associated coronaviruses.
According to Steve Gamblin, group leader of the Structural Biology of Pathological Processes Laboratory, “there is still a lot to be discovered about the evolution of SARS-CoV-2, but more we know about its history and the species it has. crossings, we have a better understanding of how it works and how it can continue to evolve. ”
The study was published online on February 5 in the journal Nature communications.
US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on COVID-19.
SOURCE: The Francis Crick Institute, press release, February 5, 2021