Simon Anthony has spent his scientific career studying viruses and their impact on health. In the United Kingdom, where he is from, he investigated viruses of agricultural significance. Then, at the San Diego Zoo, he focused on the microbes of wildlife. Currently, at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and its Center for Infection and Immunity, he studies viruses that spill over from animals into people.
Anthony also serves as the co-lead for discovery and characterization for the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID’s) Emerging Pandemic Threats PREDICT project, a $100 million global effort led by the University of California, Davis, to define the diversity of viruses in wildlife and understand their potential to spread to humans.
“I love the discovery component of the work,” Anthony says. “The wonderful thing about science is asking questions, and finding out something new that the day before no one else knew...Emerging diseases are a significant threat not just to public health but also to economic stability.
”This week in mBio, he and a team of PREDICT researchers from the United States and Uganda describe work identifying in a Ugandan bat a novel coronavirus that is similar to the one causing Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in people, giving further credence to the theory that such viruses originate in bats.
Laboratory experiments with the virus, called PREDICT/PDF-2180, indicate that while its genome appears largely similar to that of MERS-coronavirus (MERS-CoV), there are significant differences in part of its spike gene – the segment of the virus responsible for invading cells. In its current state it is unlikely to pose a threat to humans, Anthony said, unlike MERS-CoV itself, which has been shown to spread from animals such as camels to humans and between humans. MERS, first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012, is marked by severe acute respiratory disease with symptoms of fever, cough and shortness of breath. About 4 of every 10 patients with the condition have died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Anthony and colleagues at the UCD One Health Institute and with the nonprofit organization Gorilla Doctors sequenced the genome of the PDF-2180 virus found in a rectal swab taken from a bat trapped in February 2013 in southwestern Uganda. Overall, the virus had 86.5% amino acid identity to MERS-CoV and 91% amino acid identity to NeoCoV, another coronavirus found in a bat from South Africa. However, part of the spike gene had only 46% amino acid identity to the one belonging to MERS-CoV.
Next, to test the virus’ ability to spread to humans, researchers at the University of North Carolina constructed an infectious MERS-CoV clone expressing the PDF-2180 spike protein. Viruses derived from the clone could reproduce themselves but could not enter cells expressing DPP4, the receptor normally used by MERS-CoV, or establish new infections either in Vero cells derived from monkeys or in human airway cells from healthy lung donors.
“In its current form, evolution notwithstanding, this virus is probably not going to be a threat to human health,” Anthony said. The team plans to repeat the experiments with other viral samples to get a better grasp of what animal-borne viruses pose a risk to human health, he said. The discovery of the virus adds to the growing number of coronaviruses identified in bats, Anthony said, including NeoCoV; Mex_CoV-9 from Mexico; BatCoV/KW2E from Thailand; P.pipi/VM314 from the Netherlands; H.sav/206645-40 from Italy; and BetaCoV/SC2013, HKU4 and HKU5, from China. “Collectively, these examples demonstrate that the MERS-related coronaviruses are highly associated with bats and are geographically widespread,” he said. -- Karen Blum
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