WUHAN, China — The emergence of a new coronavirus strain in Wuhan, China last month has put the entire world on alert. Following the recent revelation that the virus can in fact be spread via human-to-human transmission, Chinese authorities have halted flights and trains departing the city and inhabitants have been advised not to travel. Meanwhile researchers have been working tirelessly to understand this new health risk, both its origins and nature, in order to formulate the best way to stop a full blown epidemic. Now, researchers appear to have zeroed in on how the virus, officially named 2019-nCoV by the World Health Organization, first spread to humans: exposure to snakes at a wholesale market.
The study concludes that the first human diagnosed with this strain of coronavirus had, in all likelihood, visited a market in Wuhan where a large assortment of wildlife were available for purchase, including snakes, bats, farm animals, poultry, and seafood.
A detailed genetic analysis of the virus was performed, in which it was compared to any available genetic information on other viruses from across the world and the animal kingdom. This work resulted in the conclusion that this new virus first formed due to the combination of a coronavirus strain usually found in bats with another coronavirus strain of largely “unknown origin.” The product of this combination was a new virus that featured a mix, or “recombination,” of a viral protein that recognizes and binds to host cell receptors. This ability to recognize and bind to host cells is effectively what allows viruses to enter new hosts, leading to infection and disease.
So, while the very beginnings of 2019-nCoV appear to be linked to bats, researchers also found evidence that the coronavirus at some point made its way into snakes before ultimately reaching human patient zero. It was this aforementioned ability to recombine within the viral receptor-binding protein that likely facilitated the virus’ cross-species transmission from snakes to humans.
“Results derived from our evolutionary analysis suggest for the first time that snake is the most probable wildlife animal reservoir for the 2019-nCoV,” the study reads. “New information obtained from our evolutionary analysis is highly significant for effective control of the outbreak caused by the 2019-nCoV-induced pneumonia.”
An extra editorial accompanying the study adds that while it is very likely that new vaccines or anti-viral drugs will have to be developed to fight this suddenly infamous strain of coronavirus, pre-existing antiviral drugs should at least be tested out, as it is possible they may be effective in fighting it.
The study is published in the Journal of Medical Virology.