A group of researchers in Wuhan, China have discovered a new bat coronavirus, called NeoCoV that appears to be on the threshold of human infectivity using the same pathway, the ACE-2 receptor gene, that the SARS-CoV-2 virus used to such widescale destructive effect.
No cases of NeoCoV infection of humans have been reported.
But the preprint, non-peer reviewed paper, “Close relatives of MERS-CoV in bats use ACE2 as their functional receptors,” suggests that the zoonotic virus could be on the threshold of human infectivity.
NeoCoV Has Killed No Humans, Scientists Concerned About Mutations
“In this study, we 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 favorably, human ACE2 for entry,” according to the report, whose lead authors are associated with the State Key Laboratory of Virology, Institute for Vaccine Research and Modern Virology Research Center in Wuhan.
On Friday, the World Health Organization told the Russian News Agency TASS that the new virus’ transmissibility in human has not yet been determined: “Whether the virus detected in the study will pose a risk for humans will require further study.”
Another Wuhan Bat Virus Discovery
Wuhan, a metropolis of 12 million in Eastern China, is home to one of the nation’s most advanced labs, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which potentially generated SARS-CoV-2 through gain-of-function experiments that increased the virus’ transmissibility and lethality in humans. The so-called lab-leak theory hasn’t been invalidated yet.
The Worst of MERS and SARS, Lethality and Transmissibility
The paper suggests that NeoCoV, is like MERS-CoV (85% shared genome) but uses bat ACE-2 as its entry receptor for infection. MERS-CoV (a member of the Merbecovirus lineage) is distantly related to SARS-CoV-2 (a member of the Sarbecovirus lineage) but uses a different receptor for cell entry called DPP4 rather than ACE-2.
The researchers noted NeoCoV’s apparent ability to exploit various entry receptors, including ACE-2, in animal tissue like SARS-CoV-2 and its similarities to MERS-CoV, which has a case lethality as high as 35%, that is 20 times higher than the COVID Delta variant and about 50 times higher than the less virulent Omicron variant.
NeoCoV Latent Biosafety Risk
“This unexpected ACE2 usage of these MERS-CoV close relatives highlights a latent biosafety risk, considering a combination of two potentially damaging features of high fatality observed for MERS-CoV and the high transmission rate noted for SARS-CoV-2,” the authors warned. “Furthermore, our studies show that the current COVID-19 vaccinations are inadequate to protect humans from any eventuality of the infections caused by these viruses.”
NeoCoV’s Origin? Bats or Government Lab
NeoCoV was discovered by reviewing genetic sequences of bat coronaviruses in the GenBank Database, an open access, annotated collection of all publicly available nucleotide sequences and their protein translations. It is produced and maintained by the National Center for Biotechnology Information as part of the International Nucleotide Sequence Database Collaboration.
The report’s authors credit Genewiz for having commercially synthesized the NeoCoV gene sequences.
The paper, however, is silent about whether NeoCoV is a manmade or naturally occurring agent.
In light of credible theories that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was initially collected in the wild by scientists funded by the Chinese and United States governments and then genetically modified to increase its transmissibility and lethality, the discovery of NeoCoV again raises the specter of still ongoing gain-of-function research. In “Origins of the Pandemic are Elusive: Timeline Reveals Glimpse into Path to Better Tomorrow” TrialSite chronicles evolving activity that most certainly keeps the door open to the possibility of a lab leak.