Like the virus in the movie Contagion, the novel coronavirus (hCoV-EMC) is believed to have originated in bats. Through a mutation, the virus was able to cross the species barrier and infect humans.
Like SARS and the Avian flu viruses, this mutation is an evolution process. That’s because animal viruses don’t just jump from infecting animals to infecting humans.
Viruses and other infectious diseases spread by latching onto protein cells. It’s easy to understand that an animal protein is quite different from a human protein. When an animal virus crosses that species barrier, it has undergone quite a bit of mutating.
Since 2012, when the first cases were diagnosed, out of the 14 confirmed people who contracted the novel coronavirus, eight patients died as a direct result of the viral infection. (1)
Is the Novel Coronavirus the Next SARS?
Some researchers have dubbed the novel coronavirus as the next SARS, since it, too, causes severe respiratory problems. It’s too early to tell. Scientists hope that this virus is simply an exotic strand that isn’t threatening to the world population. So far, researchers don’t know if the virus is transmitted via environment, animal or human.
The initial outbreak was in Saudi Arabia. So far, three countries (Middle East and the UK) have reported a few cases of the novel coronavirus. (1) Coronaviruses are a large group of viruses that run from SARS to common colds.
The novel coronavirus is new and until 2012 had not been diagnosed in human patients. To date:
“There is very limited information on transmission, severity and clinical impact with only a small number of cases reported thus far”. (2)
On March 14, 2013, the World Health Organization (WHO) updated their website information on the novel coronavirus, stating that new cases were continuing to be reported.
Recently, a new cluster of cases were reported in the UK. WHO translated this to mean:
“The strongest evidence to date of limited human-to-human transmission”.
Yet, there is still no information on how the virus is transmitted. (3)
The WHO also stated that:
“Although this novel coronavirus is distantly related to the SARS CoV, the two viruses are different. Based on current information, it does not appear to transmit easily or sustainably between people, unlike the SARS virus”.
While the latest cases reported seem to be limited to “family clusters”, it’s too early for researchers to determine if the virus is being transmitted from person to person or if there is another way the virus is being transmitted to the entire family.
It may be that the family was exposed to either an infected animal or that it’s something within their environment that’s responsible. More investigation and diagnostics are needed before the method of transmission can be determined.
In March 2013, scientists did identify a single molecule that led them to pinpoint the receptor that the virus uses to infect humans. This is a major step toward better understanding the virus and to eventually finding a drug to fight the virus or even perhaps vaccinate against it. (1)
Virus Could Be More Dangerous than SARS
A December 2012 paper published by a team of European researchers states that the novel coronavirus is a “member of the same virus genus as SARS-CoV but constitutes a sister species”.
However, the most significant find was that the virus doesn’t require the same receptor as SARS (SARS-CoV) in order to infect humans. The report explains that the novel coronavirus is:
“…capable of infecting human, pig, and bat cells. This is remarkable, as human CoVs normally cannot replicate in bat cells as a consequence of host adaptation. Our results implicate that the new virus might use a receptor that is conserved between bats, pigs and humans suggesting a low barrier against cross-host transmission”. (4)
In March 2013, Nature reported that:
“Stalin Raj at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and a largely European team report that spikes on the surface of hCoV-EMC bind to DPP4, a well-known receptor protein on human cells. When the binding site for the virus on DPP4 was blocked using antibodies, the virus could not infect cells; conversely, when DPP4 was expressed on the surface of normally non-susceptible cells, hCoV-EMC could now infect them”.
Some virologists feel this discovery may be all that’s needed to combat a pandemic threat that the virus could possibly pose while others caution it may not be so simple. In fact, it’s feasible that the virus could jump from one species to another and with varying mutations, create a continual volleying of reinfection.
How the virus is transmitted is an important piece of information that most scientists believe must be answered before any conclusions can be made on how to effectively treat the virus. Because the mortality rate is just over 50%, this data is imperative to ascertain if the virus is the causation or if there are other factors involved that aren’t easily discernible.