Wuhan is back in the news as a team of scientists there have warned of a lethal variant called ‘NeoCov’ that requires only one mutation to infiltrate human cells and carries the combination of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS)-CoV mortality rate (where one in every three infected persons may die) and the current SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus high transmission rate.
According to the scientists from Wuhan University in China, NeoCov can penetrate human cells in the same way as the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
“It is only one mutation away from becoming dangerous for humans,” researchers said in a paper posted on preprint website bioRxiv which has not been peer-reviewed yet.
NeoCoV has been discovered among bats in South Africa and has only been known to spread among these animals to date.
The MERS-CoV and several bat coronaviruses employ ‘DPP4’ as their functional receptors.
However, the receptor for NeoCoV, the closest MERS-CoV relative yet discovered in bats, remains “enigmatic”.
In the study, the researchers unexpectedly found that NeoCoV and its close relative, PDF-2180-CoV, can efficiently use some types of bat Angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) and, less favourably, human ACE2 for entry.
“NeoCoV efficiently infects human ACE2 expressing cells after a T510F mutation on the receptor-binding motif (RBM). Notably, the infection could not be cross-neutralised by antibodies targeting SARS-CoV-2 or MERS-CoV,” the study showed.
It means that neither antibodies nor protein molecules produced by people with respiratory diseases or who have been fully vaccinated can protect against NeoCoV.
The study demonstrated the first case of ACE2 usage in MERS-related viruses, shedding light on a potential bio-safety threat of the human emergence of an ACE2 using ‘MERS-CoV-2’ with both high fatality and transmission rate.
Associated with the MERS-CoV virus, the new virus was discovered in outbreaks in Middle Eastern countries in 2012 and 2015 and is similar to SARS-CoV-2, which causes Covid in humans.
Its impact on humans is yet to be ascertained.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), whether NeoCov coronavirus poses a threat to humans requires further study.
The WHO has said that it “works closely” with the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in order to “monitor and respond to the threat of emerging zoonotic viruses.”
Since the beginning of the Covid pandemic that has its origin in Wuhan, the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes Covid-19, has mutated and resulted in different variants of the virus, including the latest Omicron.
The Delta strain is regarded as the most contagious form of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus to date.