In late 2020, a team of scientists discovered a new virus after analyzing wild bats from Russia. Initially, they did not link the discovery of Khosta-2 with a potential risk to humans, even though the infectious agent was a relative of the covid-19 virus and that both preserved similarities with each other. Now, new research has noted that if it infects humans, neither antibodies nor existing vaccines could protect us.
Published in scientific journal PLoS Pathogens, the study on the virus discovered in Russian bats and the potential risk to humans was led by researchers at Washington State University (WSU) in the United States. It is necessary to interpret the analyzes with caution.
Despite the hypothetical danger, it must be stressed that the infectious agent is found only in wild animals and, as far as is known, has never infected a human being. Naturally, it is also unknown how this infection would occur, since the experiment was carried out only in the laboratory.
Why is the Russian bat virus similar to that of covid?
As a result of the active search for viruses in wild animals in Russia, researchers have discovered two new infectious agents: Khhosta-1 and Khhosta-2. Both belong to the same subgenus of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, known by the name of Sarbecovirus and, therefore, have numerous similarities. In the same classification, SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV also enter.
In laboratory tests, it was possible to determine that Khosta-1 posed a low risk to humans. On the other hand, Khosta-2 showed some worrying characteristics, according to the analysis of the recent study.
Can a new virus infect humans?
The team found that both Khosta-2 and the covid-19 virus can use the spike protein (spike) from the cell membrane to infect cells and, through it, they connect to the angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) — present in human cells —, theoretically completing the infection cycle.
“We found that the Khosta-2 virus spike protein could infect cells, such as human pathogens, using the same entry mechanisms, but was resistant to neutralization by the serum of SARS-CoV-2 vaccinated individuals,” the authors explain.
This is because, in addition to verifying the potential for infection, the team tested the effectiveness of antibodies found in the serum of people vaccinated against covid-19 and also in the serum of people infected with the Ômicron variant. In testing, the Khosta-2 virus resisted these already-existing defenses.
Universal vaccines against coronaviruses and variants of covid
In light of the findings, the authors argue that universal vaccines against coronaviruses should be the priority of scientific research. This new type of immunizer would protect against the covid virus and its variants, but also against any other relative of the group.
“Right now, there are groups trying to create a vaccine that not only protects against the next variant of SARS-CoV-2, but also protects us against sarbecoviruses in general,” explains Michael Letko, a virologist at WSU and one of the authors of the study, in a statement.
Among the ongoing research for the universal vaccine, is that of the Francis Crick Institute, in the United Kingdom. At the moment, the formula is already being evaluated in pre-clinical tests with animals. If successful, it will protect against 8 different types of coronavirus.