Scientists find a pangolin virus that could potentially jump to humans

Hemani Sheth Mumbai | Updated on February 06, 2021

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Scientists at the Francis Crick Institute have a pangolin coronavirus with important structural similarities to the SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing Covid-19 that could potentially jump to humans.

In a study published in Nature Communications, the scientists compared the structures of the spike proteins found on the novel coronavirus and the coronavirus which is currently most similar to it, the bat coronavirus RaTG13 along with a coronavirus isolated from Malayan pangolins which were seized by authorities after being smuggled to China.

The pangolin coronavirus was able to bind to receptors from both pangolins and humans, the study found, different from the bat coronavirus, which could not effectively bind with human or pangolin receptors.

Antoni Wrobel, co-lead author and postdoctoral training fellow in the Structural Biology of Disease Processes Laboratory at the Crick, said, “By testing, if the spike protein of a given virus can bind with cell receptors from different species, we’re able to see if, in theory, the virus could infect this species,” as quoted in an official news release published in EurekAlert!.

“Importantly here, we’ve shown two key things. Firstly, that this bat virus would unlikely be able to infect pangolins. And secondly that a pangolin virus could potentially infect humans.”

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Researchers used cryo-electron microscopy to study the structure of the pangolin coronavirus’ spike protein in minute detail. The spike protein is responsible for binding to and infecting cells.

“While some parts of the pangolin virus’ spike were found to be incredibly similar to SARS-CoV-2, other areas differed,” as per the report.

The exact origin and evolutionary path of the SARS-CoV-2 are yet to be determined by experts across the globe.

Donald Benton, co-lead author and post-doctoral training fellow in the Structural Biology of Disease Processes Laboratory at the Crick, said, “We still don’t have evidence to confirm the evolutionary path of SARS-CoV-2 or to prove definitively that this virus did pass through pangolins to humans.”

“However, we have shown that a pangolin virus could potentially jump to humans, so we urge caution in any contact with this species and the end of illegal smuggling and trade in pangolins to protect against this risk.”

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Steve Gamblin, group leader of the Structural Biology of Disease Processes Laboratory at the Crick said, “A lot is still to be uncovered about the evolution of SARS-CoV-2, but the more we know about its history and which species it passed through, the more we understand about how it works, and how it may continue to evolve.”

Published on February 06, 2021

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