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What Do We Know So Far About the New NeoCoV Coronavirus Strain?

Chinese scientists have discovered that a NeoCoV strain of coronavirus, the closest relative of the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), is capable, subject to mutation, of infecting people and therefore can be considered “a potential bio-safety threat” to humanity. Saying that, they underlined that the nature of NeoCoV “remains enigmatic.”

Here is what we know at the moment about the mysterious virus.

Where and how was the strain discovered?

The strain itself was known to scientists long before the Covid-19 pandemic, caused by the SARS-CoV-2 strain, started. In 2014, the American Society for Microbiology published research dedicated to the then-emerging MERS-CoV, found in camels and later in hedgehogs. The paper says that the scientists “determined the full genome sequence of a CoV directly from fecal material obtained from a South African Neoromicia capensis bat (NeoCoV)” – to find out that 85% of the NeoCoV genome was identical to MERS-CoV. They concluded that while two strains belonged to “one viral species,” MERS-CoV had apparently emerged as a result of NeoCoV mutation, being passed from bats to camels. Several other studies later confirmed that the strains originated from the bats.

MERS-CoV, now identified by the World Health Organization as a likely cause of future pandemics, caused outbreaks in 21 countries in 2015.

How different are NeoCoV and SARS-CoV-2?

A 2020 research paper, published by the National Library of Medicine, indicates that NeoCoV is closer to MERS-CoV than SARS-CoV. The scientists also warned that NeoCoV may appear “in human-related infection.”

According to the bombshell preprint, published on Wednesday on the bioRxiv portal, NeoCoV “can efficiently use some types of bat Angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) and, less favorably, human ACE2 for entry.”

SARS-CoV-2 uses ACE2 to enter the human body, too, which means that the infection mechanism of the two strains, despite their differences, might be similar.

Does NeoCoV pose an imminent threat to humans?

According to the preprint’s authors, most of whom come from the notorious Wuhan university, in order to “efficiently” infect a human, the strain needs to mutate in a particular way. Currently NeoCoV is spreading only in bats.

The ability of coronaviruses to mutate and to transmit from animals to animals (as apparently was in the case of bats and camels) and from animals to humans is well known: another recent study, also conducted by Chinese scientists, showed that ‘the progenitor’ of the Omicron variant of Covid-19, now dominant in many countries, “jumped from humans to mice, rapidly accumulated mutations conducive to infecting that host, then jumped back into humans.”

In an interview with RT, immunologist Vladimir Bolibok explained that bats, “being a natural reservoir of a wide variety of coronavirus variants” have, like humans, their own coronaviruses which can transmit and mutate.
“Mutations can be dangerous if the structure of the spike proteins of the coronavirus can acquire an affinity for human proteins,” the doctor said.

According to the experts from the Russian Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology Vector, there is no reason to panic.

“At the moment, there is no talk about the emergence of a new coronavirus, ready to actively spread in the human population. The risks identified by Chinese experts are of a potential nature and require further study,” Vector’s statement reads, as quoted by RIA Novosti.

How dangerous might NeoCoV be?

The Chinese scientists warned of “a potential bio-safety threat” of the novel virus “with both high fatality and transmission rate.”

The fatality rate of the strain’s ‘closest relative’, MERS-CoV, stands at 34-35% since its emergence in 2012, which is much higher than SARS-CoV-2 with its 10% rate.

There is another factor which could make NeoCoV more dangerous.

“Notably, the infection could not be cross-neutralized by antibodies targeting SARS-CoV-2 or MERS-CoV,” the preprint reads.

What are the scientists’ recommendations?

The authors of the study underline that NeoCoV remains largely unexplored. Other scientists agree that further research is needed, as well as close monitoring of bats and other animals affected by MERS-CoV-related viruses “in order not to miss the moment.”

“Any infection that arises from nature and passes to humans is a concern, because with such a population density, as in cities in Southeast Asia, in China in particular, in European, American cities, any infection will spread like wildfire, if there is at least some contagiousness for a person,” Bolibok said.

Source : RT

Revealed: Wuhan and US Scientists Planned to Create New Coronaviruses

Sarah Knapton wrote . . . . . . . . .

Scientists from Wuhan and the US were planning to create new coronaviruses that did not exist in nature by combining the genetic codes of other viruses, proposals show.

Documents of a grant application submitted to the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), leaked last month, reveal that the international team of scientists planned to mix genetic data of closely related strains and grow completely new viruses.

A genetics expert working with the World Health Organisation (WHO), who uncovered the plan after studying the proposals in detail, said that if Sars-CoV-2 had been produced in this way, it would explain why a close match has never been found in nature.

So far the closest naturally occurring virus to Sars-CoV-2 is a strain called Banal-52, which was reported from Laos last month and shares 96.8 per cent of the genome. Yet scientists expect a direct ancestor to be around a 99.98 per cent match – and none has been found so far.

The Darpa proposals, leaked to the pandemic origins analysis group Drastic, show the team had planned to take sequences from naturally occurring coronaviruses and use them to create a brand new sequence that was an average of all the strains.

The grant application, submitted in 2018, states: “We will compile sequence/RNAseq data from a panel of closely related strains and compare full length genomes, scanning for unique SNPs representing sequencing errors.

“Consensus candidate genomes will be synthesised commercially using established techniques and genome-length RNA and electroporation to recover recombinant viruses.”

Explaining the proposal, a WHO collaborator, who has asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, said: “This means that they would take various sequences from similar coronaviruses and create a new sequence that is essentially the average of them. It would be a new virus sequence, not a 100 per cent match to anything.

“They would then synthesise the viral genome from the computer sequence, thus creating a virus genome that did not exist in nature but looks natural as it is the average of natural viruses.

“Then they put that RNA in a cell and recover the virus from it. This creates a virus that has never existed in nature, with a new ‘backbone’ that didn’t exist in nature but is very, very similar as it’s the average of natural backbones.”

The source said it was noteworthy that the cut-off for generating such an average sequence was viruses that only had five per cent genetic divergence from each other.

Last year, scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology said they had found a strain named RaTG13 in bat droppings in a cave in Yunnan province in 2013 which was a 96.1 per cent match to Sars-CoV-2. It means RaTG13 could have been included in a set of viral genomes to help create an average sequence.

Although the grant proposal was rejected in 2018, the Wuhan database of viral strains was taken offline prior to the Covid outbreak some 18 months later, meaning it is impossible to check which viruses the team was working on or had created. Wuhan scientists have consistently denied creating Sars-CoV-2 in a lab.

The WHO source added: “If Sars-CoV-2 comes from an artificial consensus sequence composed of genomes with more than 95 per cent similarity to each other… I would predict that we will never find a really good match in nature and just a bunch of close matches across parts of the sequence, which so far is what we are seeing.

“The problem is that those opposed to a lab leak scenario will always just say that we need to sample more, and absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. Scientists overall are afraid of discussing the issue of the origins due to the political situation. This leaves a small and vocal minority of biased scientists free to spread misinformation.”

The proposal was submitted by the British zoologist Peter Daszak on behalf of a consortium which included Daszak EcoHealth Alliance, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the University of North Carolina and Duke NUS in Singapore.

The plans are in addition to other proposals made in the Darpa documents, including inserting a section into existing viruses to make them more infectious to humans and inoculating wild bats with aerosolised engineered spike proteins from viruses.

Experts said if the ultimate aim of the proposal was to create a pan-coronavirus vaccine, constructing an “ideal” average virus would have been a good starting point.

Mr Daszak, currently a member of the WHO team investigating the pandemic’s origins, was also behind a letter published in The Lancet which dismissed suggestions that Covid did not have a natural origin as a conspiracy theory.

The WHO source said he had struggled to raise the issue of a lab leak with other scientists and had been warned not to go on the record with his concerns.

The proposal team has been approached for comment but had not responded at the time of publication.

Source : The Telegraph