Scientists are concerned that a new virus identified in pigs in the United States could pose a deadly threat, after it has been found to be able to infect human cells.
Lab tests have shown that the pathogen can readily jump between cells of different species, including pigs, birds, and most worryingly for those trying to prevent an outbreak, humans. The research has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The virus was first found lurking in pigs in China in 2012, but at the time it was not associated with a disease. It was not until 2014 when pigs in Ohio with full blown diarrhea and vomiting were found to be infected with the virus that the threat that it could pose was fully realized. Since then, it has been found in a number of other countries and is known to have killed livestock.
Researchers studying this particular virus are worried because of its similarity to the viruses that cause both severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which has a 10 percent fatality rate and was traced back to horseshoe bats in China, and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which has a 36 percent mortality rate and found in both camels and bats.
So far, porcine deltacoronavirus has not been documented in humans yet, but researchers fear that it might just be a matter of time. “Before it was found in pigs – including in the Ohio outbreak – it had only been found in various birds,” explained Linda Saif, who led this latest study. “We're very concerned about emerging coronaviruses and worry about the harm they can do to animals and their potential to jump to humans.”
The team wanted to test which animals' cells the virus could potentially get into. To do this, they looked at the pathogen's ability to bind to cell surface receptors. “A receptor is like a lock in the door. If the virus can pick the lock, it can get into the cell and potentially infect the host,” added co-author Scott Kenney.
Obviously, they found that it could enter the cells of pigs, this much they already knew. But they then tested it on cultures of other animals, including chickens, cats, and humans, and found that it could get into those cells too. They point out that just because it can enter a cell, it does not necessarily mean that the virus can replicate itself, but this discovery is concerning enough as it can seemingly enter the cells of a wide variety of species.
The researchers now want to carry on their work to test pigs for antibodies to the virus, and then see if the similar ones turn up in people.