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

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

American virologists who have conducted experiments with the pathogen, called Khosta-2, fear that it is “completely resistant” to the vaccines implemented during the pandemic.

They found that it could stick to human cells with ease in the same way as the Covid virus.

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

However, the never-before-seen pathogen was detected in bat samples collected between March and October 2020.

Virologists trusted to carry out experiments on the pathogen, called Khosta-2, fear it is 'completely resistant' to vaccines rolled out during the pandemic (stock)

Virologists trusted to carry out experiments on the pathogen, called Khosta-2, fear it is ‘completely resistant’ to vaccines rolled out during the pandemic (stock)

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

The 480,000-acre park, home to hundreds of caves, is located 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.

Aside from being a distant relative of SARS-CoV-2, the strain behind Covid, hardly anything is known about it.

Researchers at Washington State University decided to test the virus, hoping to learn more.

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

The tests showed that Khosta-2 could infect human cells in an almost identical way to SARS-CoV-2.

Using a spike-like protein on its surface, the virus latches onto a gateway enzyme found on the outside of human cells, called ACE-2.

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

Researchers at the Gamaleya National Research Center, a branch of the Moscow Health Ministry, said they were carrying out “continuous surveillance” 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.

However, the never-before-seen pathogen was detected in bat samples collected between March and October 2020.

Where is it located?

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

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

What kind of virus is it?

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

Aside from being a distant relative of SARS-CoV-2 (the strain behind Covid), hardly anything is known about it.

Can it infect humans?

There is no evidence yet that it has infected any humans.

However, tests showed that Khosta-2 could infect human cells in an almost identical way to SARS-CoV-2.

Using a spike-like protein on its surface, the virus latches onto a gateway enzyme found on the outside of human cells, called ACE-2.

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

Despite being able to attach to human cells in this way, experts concluded that it was not as efficient as SARS-CoV-2, which some scientists believe has evolved to become more contagious than measles.

The experiments also tested whether vaccines or drugs against Covid could destroy it, if it ever jumped to humans (a process known as zoonosis).

It was ‘completely resistant’ to an antibody drug made by Eli Lilly.

Khosta-2 also appeared ‘resistant’ to two doses of injections from Moderna and Pfizer, the lab work revealed.

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

The results of the experiment were published in PLoS Pathogens.

Writing in the journal, the team acknowledged that most of the ‘hundreds’ of sarbecoviruses discovered ‘are not capable’ of infecting humans.

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

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

They pointed to SARS-CoV-2 as an example, given that it was behind “the largest global pandemic in modern history.”

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

“While some experiments have been done with the new viruses, several remain untested and therefore their ability to transmit to humans is unknown.”

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

“Many animal species carry their own coronaviruses.

“With the discovery of additional sarbecoviruses in broader geographic regions, the risk of new recombinant (hybrid) viruses is increasing.”

This, they warned, ‘opens the possibility of new sarbecoviruses compatible with humans’.

.