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Covid-like virus lurking in bats deep in Russian caves 'could jump to humans'

Virologists tasked with conducting experiments on the pathogen - called Khosta-2 - fear it may be 'completely resistant' to vaccines deployed during the pandemic (stock)

A Covid-like virus lurking in Russian bats could spread to humans, scientists warned today.

American virologists who have carried out experiments on the pathogen – called Khosta-2 – fear that it is “completely resistant” to vaccines deployed during the pandemic.

They discovered that it was able to easily latch onto human cells in the same way as the Covid virus.

Experts affiliated with the Russian government only acknowledged the existence of Khosta-2 last May.

Yet the novel pathogen was detected in bat samples collected between March and October 2020.

Virologists tasked with conducting experiments on the pathogen - called Khosta-2 - fear it may be 'completely resistant' to vaccines deployed during the pandemic (stock)

Virologists tasked with conducting experiments on the pathogen – called Khosta-2 – fear it may be ‘completely resistant’ to vaccines deployed during the pandemic (stock)

Researchers based at the Gamaleya National Research Center, a branch of the Moscow Health Ministry, said they were carrying out “continuous monitoring” of bats living in Sochi National Park.

The 480,000-acre park, home to hundreds of caves, sits on the outskirts of the city of the same name, which hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Khosta-2 is classified as a sarbecovirus, a branch of the coronavirus family tree.

Other than being a distant relative of SARS-CoV-2 – the strain behind Covid – almost nothing is known about it.

Researchers at Washington State University decided to run tests on the virus, hoping to find out more.

Dr. Stephanie Seifert and her colleagues also experimented on Khosta-1 – an extremely similar virus detected in the same original samples.

The tests showed that Khosta-2 was able to infect human cells in a nearly identical way to SARS-CoV-2.

Using a spike-shaped protein on its surface, the virus latches onto an entry enzyme found outside human cells, called ACE-2.

The process is often compared to a key inserted into a lock.

Researchers based at the Gamaleya National Research Center, a branch of the Moscow Health Ministry, said they were carrying out a

Researchers based at the Gamaleya National Research Center, a branch of the Moscow Health Ministry, said they were carrying out “continuous monitoring” of bats living in Sochi National Park.

What do we know about the virus?

When did scientists discover it?

Experts affiliated with the Russian government only acknowledged the existence of Khosta-2 last May.

Yet the novel pathogen was detected in bat samples collected between March and October 2020.

Where do we find it?

Researchers based at the Gamaleya National Research Center, a branch of the Moscow Health Ministry, said they were carrying out “continuous monitoring” of bats living in Sochi National Park.

The 480,000-acre park, home to hundreds of caves, sits on the outskirts of the city of the same name, which hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics.

What type of virus is it?

Khosta-2 is classified as a sarbecovirus, a branch of the coronavirus family tree.

Besides being a distant relative of SARS-CoV-2 (the strain behind Covid), almost nothing is known about it.

Can it infect humans?

There is no evidence that he has infected a human at this time.

However, tests have shown Khosta-2 to be able to infect human cells in a nearly identical way to SARS-CoV-2.

Using a spike-shaped protein on its surface, the virus latches onto an entry enzyme found outside human cells, called ACE-2.

The process is often compared to a key inserted into a lock.

Although they are able to latch onto human cells this way, experts have concluded it is not as effective as SARS-CoV-2 – which some scientists say has evolved to become more contagious than measles.

Experiments also tested whether Covid vaccines or drugs could destroy it, if it were ever to pass to humans (a process known as zoonosis).

He was “completely resistant” to an antibody drug made by Eli Lilly.

Khosta-2 also appeared “resistant” to two doses of the Moderna and Pfizer jabs, lab work revealed.

Dr Seifert and his colleagues, however, said it was “still possible” that natural Covid immunity – or potentially even that acquired through vaccines – could overcome the virus.

The results of the experiment have been published in PLoS Pathogens.

Writing in the journal, the team acknowledged that the majority of the “hundreds” of sarbecoviruses discovered are “not capable” of infecting humans.

But they added that their findings demonstrate they “pose a threat to global health” and “underscore the urgent need” to develop universal coronavirus vaccines.

“The zoonotic spillover of sarbecoviruses has led to the emergence of highly pathogenic human viruses,” academics wrote.

They cited SARS-CoV-2 as an example, given that it caused “the largest global pandemic in modern history.”

“Researchers around the world are accelerating the pace of viral discovery efforts, expanding sequence databases with new circulating animal sarbecoviruses.

“While some experiments have been performed with the new viruses, several have not yet been tested and their ability to transmit to humans is therefore unknown.”

Dr Seifert and his team added: “SARS-CoV-2 can infect a wide range of species and has now spread to wild and domestic animals.

“Many animal species carry their own coronaviruses.

“With the discovery of additional sarbecoviruses in wider geographic regions, the risk of novel recombinant (hybrid) viruses increases.”

This, they warned, “opens up the possibility of new human-compatible sarbecoviruses.”

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