Origins of COVID-19 still a mystery, new study shows

In a new study, researchers found that the highly-infectious SARS-CoV-2 virus is most ideally adapted to infect human cells—rather than bat or pangolin cells.

The research was led by Flinders University scientists.

In a quest to find a vaccine or drug treatment for COVID-19, high-performance computer modeling has been used by Australian scientists to study the virus’s ability to target a variety of 12 exotic and domestic animals in the hope of identifying the original source of the virus.

The study compared the modeling to the virus’s ability to bind to human cells and found the SARS-CoV-2 virus targets humans more potently than any of the tested animal species.

The results clearly show that the COVID-19 virus is exquisitely adapted to infect humans.

The team says the virus’s ability to bind protein on human cells was far greater than its ability to bind the same protein in bats, which argues against bats being a direct source of the human virus.

The team’s computer modeling shows the SARS-CoV-2 virus also bound strongly to cells of pangolins.

How and where the SARS-CoV-2 virus adapted to become such an effective human pathogen remains a mystery, the scientists conclude.

They add that finding the origins of the disease will help efforts to protect people against future coronavirus pandemics.

The research points to a number of reasons why the virus became so well adapted to humans, such as convergent evolution after exposure to human cells, rare mutations that mix two species genes, and exposure to human cells very early in the pandemic.

But how and where the SARS-CoV-2 virus adapted to become such an effective human pathogen remains a mystery that requires intensive further scientific research.

The lead author of the study is Flinders University Professor Nikolai Petrovsky.

The study is published in arXiv, a leading US preprint server for researchers.

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