Researchers working with the novel coronavirus that infected patients from three Middle Eastern countries found that the virus can infect cells from multiple species, according to a study released on Tuesday.
The relative to the SARS virus, called hCoV-EMC, infected at least nine people in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The virus is linked to two illness clusters, though the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control said that there is too little information to confirm or rule out human-to-human transmissibility, CIDRAP News reports.
The researchers found that the receptor the virus uses to infect human cells is different than the one used by the SARS virus and can infect cells from a range of animals. The hCoV-EMC virus may use a still-unknown receptor in human lungs that is easier to access than the angiotensin-converting enzyme two, a receptor deep in human lungs that SARS used to infect humans. If the novel virus uses a receptor that is easier to access, the virus could be more infectious than SARS.
The study also determined that while SARS changed when it moved from species to species, rendering it unable to infect the previous species, hCoV-EMC can infect cells from multiple species. The virus was able to enter cells from four major bat families, primates and pigs.
“It’s completely unusual for any coronavirus to be able to do that—to go back to its original reservoir,” Christian Drosten, the lead author of the study, said, according to CIDRAP News.
The animals could all share a common receptor, such as one present on mucosal surfaces. As a result, the virus may be able to pass back and forth between humans and animals and be difficult or impossible to eliminate.
Kathryn Holmes, a professor emerita with the University of Colorado School of Medicine’s Department of Microbiology, said that the discovery that the virus grows well in multiple species without adaptation is important, but it does not necessarily predict that each of the species will be sickened by the coronavirus, CIDRAP News reports.