UNC Researchers in 2015: ‘SARS-like cluster of circulating bat coronaviruses shows potential for human emergence’

CHAPEL HILL – After the SARS and MERS outbreaks, a team of scientists in Chapel Hill explored what other novel viruses may also represent significant dangers to human populations. As the nation and world collectively seize up in the face of the rapidly spreading Wuhan Flu, the work of those UNC Chapel Hill researchers is raising eyebrows.

The peer-reviewed study suggested, back in 2015, that a SARS-like coronavirus carried by bats represented a growing potential for plaguing humans. China points to an open market in Wuhan, where live bats were being sold for meat, as the epicenter of the initial outbreak.

From the paper’s abstract:

“The emergence of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS)-CoV underscores the threat of cross-species transmission events leading to outbreaks in humans. Here we examine the disease potential of a SARS-like virus, SHC014-CoV, which is currently circulating in Chinese horseshoe bat populations. Using the SARS-CoV reverse genetics system, we generated and characterized a chimeric virus expressing the spike of bat coronavirus SHC014 in a mouse-adapted SARS-CoV backbone. The results indicate that group 2b viruses encoding the SHC014 spike in a wild-type backbone can efficiently use multiple orthologs of the SARS receptor human angiotensin converting enzyme II (ACE2), replicate efficiently in primary human airway cells and achieve in vitro titers equivalent to epidemic strains of SARS-CoV. Additionally, in vivo experiments demonstrate replication of the chimeric virus in mouse lung with notable pathogenesis. Evaluation of available SARS-based immune-therapeutic and prophylactic modalities revealed poor efficacy; both monoclonal antibody and vaccine approaches failed to neutralize and protect from infection with CoVs using the novel spike protein. On the basis of these findings, we synthetically re-derived an infectious full-length SHC014 recombinant virus and demonstrate robust viral replication both in vitro and in vivo. Our work suggests a potential risk of SARS-CoV re-emergence from viruses currently circulating in bat populations.

Did you catch all that?

Put more simply, the study led the researchers to believe these corona viruses in bats could be transmitted to humans; the germ could infect humans in multiple ways; replicate easily in human airways such that it becomes an epidemic risk; and that treatments and vaccines would not be effective to protect people from infection.

Fast-forward to 2020: A novel coronavirus thought to have come from bats has earned the ‘pandemic’ label, while sending health systems, governments, and markets reeling, and much of the world waits with bated breath for a vaccine to be developed.

You can access the study here.

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