Rising worries over NeoCov coronavirus: What WHO, experts have said

After a Chinese study on Friday flagged a type of coronavirus, NeoCov, that spreads among bats in South Africa and which may pose a threat to humans in future if it mutates further, the World Health Organisation (WHO) responded to growing worries across the globe. “The question of whether the NeoCov coronavirus poses a threat to humans, requires further study,” the WHO said, speaking to Russia’s TASS news agency. The WHO said that it “works closely” with the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the UN Environment Program (UNEP)in order to “monitor and respond to the threat of emerging zoonotic viruses.”

What is NeoCov?

A yet-to-be peer-reviewed study recently posted on the preprint repository BioRxiv, shows that NeoCov is closely related to the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), a viral disease first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that can cause diseases ranging from the common cold to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Wuhan University noted that NeoCov is found in a population of bats in South Africa and to date spreads exclusively among these animals.

In its current form, NeoCov does not infect humans but further mutations may make it potentially harmful, the researchers noted. “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 favourably, human ACE2 for entry,” the authors of the study noted.

ACE2 is a receptor protein on cells that provides the entry point for the coronavirus to hook into and infect a wide range of cells. “Our study demonstrates 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,” they said.

The researchers further noted that infection with NeoCov could not be cross-neutralised by antibodies targeting SARS-CoV-2 or MERS-CoV. “Considering the extensive mutations in the RBD regions of the SARS-CoV-2 variants, especially the heavily mutated Omicron variant, these viruses may hold a latent potential to infect humans through further adaptation,” the authors of the study added.

What experts say

Maharashtra coronavirus task force member Dr Shashank Joshi tweeted on the topic, stating that a lot of news about the virus was hype. He said that NeoCov was an old virus closely related to MERS, which enter cells via DPP4 receptors, and what was new was that NeoCov could use ACE-2 receptors of bats, but can’t use human ACE-2 receptor unless a new mutation occurs. 

Dr Jayprakash Muliyil, chairperson of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the National Institute of Epidemiology, told The Indian Express: “The chances of it jumping I would say is 0.001, which statistically means unlikely. We live with so many pathogens; there is no need to worry about it. It is good for those who want to scare people.”

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