Is the Coronavirus in China Identical to the One in the U.S.?
What are the newly discovered properties of the virus?
Posted March 16, 2020 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
What is new about the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic?
First, did you know that a coronavirus was the cause of the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic in 2003? SARS caused great suffering and killed close to 800 people. A coronavirus also caused the MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic in 2012. MERS killed close to 900 people in that region.
Anthony Fehr and Stanley Perlman from the Department of Microbiology, University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine wrote about coronaviruses in 2015: “It is likely that these viruses will continue to emerge and to evolve and cause both human and veterinary outbreaks owing to their ability to recombine, mutate, and infect multiple species and cell types."
Fehr and Perlman were right. Those coronaviruses mutated and now, with the coronavirus, we have a pandemic.
Research shows that the new mutated coronavirus is more flexible than the other coronaviruses. This flexibility enables it to penetrate into fish, reptiles (snakes), and birds as well as mammals.
If you’ve seen a picture of the virus, you probably noticed that the virus has spikes all around it. Those spikes, write Yun Chen and colleagues from the Edmond Fischer Translational Medical Research Laboratory in Guangdong, China, have the propensity to bind to an enzyme called ACE2 (Angiotensin Converting Enzyme 2).
ACE2 is present in the duodenum, small intestine, colon, kidneys, testis, gallbladder, and also fatty tissues. The affinity for ACE2 is so high that just a small amount of coronavirus can trigger a severe infection.
Because there is a lot of ACE2 in the duodenum, small intestine, and colon (more than in the testis and gallbladder), Yun Chen concludes that coronavirus can be present in the stools of infected people and thus can be transmitted not only through cough droplets but also through feces (the latest studies have confirmed that the virus is found in the feces of some infected individuals).
Now an interesting question is:
Are all coronaviruses the same or are there differences between the viruses found in Asia, Europe, and America?
The surprising answer is that there are small but possibly important differences.
The biotech company Gisaid recently performed a genomic analysis of the virus that showed several small (but potentially significant) mutations as the infection progresses from country to country. These mutations mean that the virus found in the US, or in Italy, or in other countries is very similar to, but not exactly the same as, the one found in China.
“These different mutations could change the virulence and transmission potential of the virus,” observed Dr. Sabine Hazan, CEO of Progenabiome, a research genetic sequencing lab based in Ventura, California. "These mutations could make it difficult to create a worldwide efficacious vaccine.”
Indeed, the novel coronavirus is much less deadly than its cousin, the precursor coronavirus which caused SARS (mortality rate of 15 percent of the infected people, but 50 percent of age 60+) and MERS (killed 35 percent of the people infected). But here is a key point: This virus is infecting many more people, causing a pandemic, while SARS or MERS were “only” epidemics.
The important question is:
What can we do to fight against this pandemic?
Dr. William Haseltine, former Harvard Medical School professor, founder of the university’s cancer and HIV/AIDS research departments, Chair and President of the global health think tank ACCESS Health International, writes that we need to do the following:
“Avoid crowds, wash your hands often and use hand sanitizers. Do not touch your face (most people do about one thousand times a day). If you use public transport wipe down with steri-wipes all surfaces you are likely to touch. Using gloves in taxis, buses and subways is a good idea.”
In general, if you feel sick, you should stay home and contact your doctor. This lets the medical community know that you are sick and helps quantify the extent of the pandemic. You will receive medical advice without potentially infecting other people (doctors, nurses, healthcare providers, and other patients) and the medical community will be ready to hospitalize you if necessary.
As for our government, it should do more than it currently does. It needs to put the whole United States in lockdown. It also needs to increase funding for research of new treatments and vaccines to fight the current pandemic but also to prepare for the next pandemic because there will be a next coronavirus pandemic.
“Moving ahead as soon as possible on clinical trials is imperative,” said pioneering microbiome and immunity researcher Dr. Sabine Hazan. “We hope to expand our clinical trials relating to the gut and the immune system, especially focusing on COVID-19.”
The bottom line is that for this pandemic, we need to be as creative and agile as are the iterations of coronavirus because we do not know how the virus will mutate next or how infectious or lethal the next mutation will be.
Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communication: Structure analysis of the receptor binding of 2019-nCoV By Yun Chen a, 1, Yao Guo a, 1, Yihang Pan a, **, Zhizhuang Joe Zhao a, b, * a Edmond H. Fischer Translational Medical Research Laboratory, Precision Medicine Center, The Seventh Affiliated Hospital, Sun Yat-sen University, Shenzhen, 518107, Guangdong, China and Department of Pathology, University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, 940 Stanton L. Young Blvd, Oklahoma City, OK, 73104, USA