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Two Papers in Science Magazine Show Dangers of Endemic Coronaviruses in Bats for Human Pandemics and the pernicious effects of cutting funding for this research

2020-06-02

Coronavirus studies by Engin Akyurt via pixabay.com

Two papers published in Science Magazine on May 29 and June 1 describe endemic bat coronaviruses and how they mutated into SARS-COV-2.  The first paper, published May 29, discusses “Emergence of SARS-CoV-2 through recombination and strong purifying selection”– that is, how the novel coronavirus was evolved through combining parts of other viruses that were both present in the circulation of a non-human host.  Then, selection of the “receptor binding motif” (RBM) occurred, winnowing down mutations of the virus into a form that readily invaded cells by a particularly efficient protein on the virus’ spike.

The second paper, published June 1,  tells of the wide variety of coronaviruses that were collected from a particular species of bat– the Chinese horseshoe bat– during field studies.  Unfortunately, this research was stopped when the grant for the research was cut off by the US government.  “In a preprint posted yesterday on bioRxiv, the researchers examine partial genetic sequences of 781 coronaviruses found in bats in China, more than one-third of which have never been published.”  The preprint is titled, “Origin and cross-species transmission of bat coronaviruses in China” and details sequence data from all known bat coronaviruses, with a phylogenetic analysis showing the origin of SARS-COV-2.

The study, which collected numerous previously unknown varieties of potentially epidemic zoonotic viruses (those that spread from another species to humans), was stopped prematurely because the administration decided to cut off its funding before it could be completed.

From the paper published June 1:

One “pretty big limitation” of EcoHealth-led study, Gao notes, is that the researchers cataloged the bat viruses by a tiny part of their genetic material. The entire genome of bat coronaviruses consists of about 30,000 RNA bases, but obtaining full sequences is often difficult and expensive. So instead the research team sequenced just 440 bases from the gene that codes for a key viral enzyme, the RNA-dependent RNA polymerase. Gao says getting full viral sequences would have provided much more biological information on the different viruses found.

Daszak says that was going to be the next step but then NIH cut the grant. “We were planning to get full genome sequences from these samples and find out which [viruses] are likely able to bind to human cell surface receptors,” he says. “We won’t be able to do that work without the funding, unfortunately.” And even the hundreds of viruses included in the current paper are only a fraction of what remains to be discovered, Daszak says. “We are looking at maybe 10,000 to 15,000 bat coronaviruses that are out there.”

There is plenty of evidence that some of these viruses are spilling over to humans all the time in southern China, Daszak says. In an earlier paper, Daszak and co-workers found SARS-related antibodies to coronaviruses in about 3% of people they sampled in China living near bat caves, suggesting they had been infected by some of these viruses. He argues that the world needs to change its approach and go from reacting to pandemics to trying to identify dangerous coronaviruses before they emerge. Many more viruses that are closely related to SARS-CoV-2 are just waiting to be discovered in wildlife, Daszak says. “But, of course, if history repeats itself, by the time we’ve found all the rest of the SARS-2 clade, something else will be emerging.”

This is the pernicious effect of cutting off funding for highly productive research just because it involves cooperation with Chinese scientists.  This short-sighted decision will render us less able to foresee the next pandemic’s inevitable appearance.

 

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