Covid-like virus lurking in bats deep in Russian caves ‘could jump to humans’

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A Covid-like virus lurking in Russian bats could jump on humans, scientists warned today.

US virologists who conducted experiments with the pathogen – called Khosta-2 – fear it is “completely resistant” to vaccines deployed during the pandemic.

They found that in the same way as the Covid virus, it could easily hold onto human cells.

Experts affiliated with the Russian government only recognized the existence of Khosta-2 last May.

Still, the never-before-seen pathogen was detected in bat samples collected between March and October 2020.

Virologists trusted to conduct experiments on the pathogen - dubbed Khosta-2 - fear it is 'completely resistant' to vaccines deployed during the pandemic (stock)

Virologists trusted to conduct experiments on the pathogen – dubbed Khosta-2 – fear it is ‘completely resistant’ to vaccines deployed during the pandemic (stock)

Researchers from the Gamaleya National Research Centre, a branch of the Moscow Ministry of Health, said they were conducting “ongoing surveillance” of bats living in Sochi National Park.

The 480,000-hectare park, with hundreds of caves, sits on the edge of the town of the same name, which hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Khosta-2 is classified as a sarbecovirus, a branch of the coronavirus family tree.

Other than being a distant relative of SARS-CoV-2 — the strain behind Covid — little is known about it.

Researchers at Washington State University decided to run tests for the virus, hoping to find out more.

dr. Stephanie Seifert and colleagues also experimented with Khosta-1 – an extremely similar virus detected in the same original samples.

Tests showed that Khosta-2 was able to infect human cells in an almost identical way to SARS-CoV-2.

Using a spike-like protein on its surface, the virus hooks onto an entry enzyme found on the outside of human cells called ACE-2.

The process is often compared to a key being inserted into a lock.

Researchers from the Gamaleya National Research Center, a branch of the Moscow Ministry of Health, said they were conducting “ongoing surveillance” of bats living in Sochi National Park.

What do we know about the virus?

When did scientists discover it?

Experts affiliated with the Russian government only recognized the existence of Khosta-2 last May.

Still, the never-before-seen pathogen was detected in bat samples collected between March and October 2020.

Where is it found?

Researchers from the Gamaleya National Research Centre, a branch of the Moscow Ministry of Health, said they were conducting “ongoing surveillance” of bats living in Sochi National Park.

The 480,000-hectare park, with hundreds of caves, sits on the edge of the town of the same name, which hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics.

What kind of virus is it?

Khosta-2 is classified as a sarbecovirus, a branch of the coronavirus family tree.

Other than being a distant relative of SARS-CoV-2 (the strain behind Covid), little is known about it.

Can it infect humans?

There is no evidence yet that it has infected a human.

However, tests showed that Khosta-2 was able to infect human cells in an almost identical way to SARS-CoV-2.

Using a spike-like protein on its surface, the virus hooks onto an entry enzyme found on the outside of human cells called ACE-2.

The process is often compared to a key being inserted into a lock.

Despite being able to trap human cells in this way, experts concluded it wasn’t as efficient at doing so as SARS-CoV-2 — which, according to some scientists, has evolved to become more contagious than measles.

Experiments also tested whether Covid vaccines or drugs could destroy it, if it ever jumped to humans (a process known as zoonosis).

It was “completely resistant” to one antibody drug made by Eli Lilly.

Khosta-2 was also found to be ‘resistant’ to two doses of both the Moderna and Pfizer shots, laboratory studies found.

dr. However, Seifert and colleagues said it was “still possible” that natural Covid immunity – or possibly even that obtained through vaccines – could defeat the virus.

The results of the experiment were published in PLoS Pathogens.

Writing in the journal, the team acknowledged that the majority of the “hundreds” of sarbecoviruses discovered are “incapable” of infecting humans.

But they added that their findings show they “pose a threat to global health” and “highlight the urgent need” to develop universal coronavirus vaccines.

“Zoonotic overflow of sarbecoviruses has led to the emergence of highly pathogenic human viruses,” academics wrote.

They pointed to SARS-CoV-2 as an example, as it was behind “the largest global pandemic in modern history.”

‘Researchers around the world are accelerating viral discovery efforts and expanding sequence databases with new animal sarbecoviruses in circulation.

“Although some experiments have been conducted with the new viruses, some have not yet been tested, so their ability to transmit to humans is unknown.”

dr. Seifert and team added: ‘SARS-CoV-2 can infect a wide range of species and has now been pushed back in both wild and domestic animals.

‘Many animal species carry their own coronaviruses.

“With the discovery of additional sarbecoviruses in wider geographic regions, the risk of new recombinant (hybrid) viruses is increasing.”

This, they warned, “opens the possibility of new human-compatible sarbecoviruses.”

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