Shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in the Chinese city of Wuhan and SARS-CoV-2 gradually spread around the world, Professor at Duke University Gregory Gray commissioned one of his students to develop a test capable of detect all species of coronavirus in order to prevent a future catastrophe.

The goal was, once the reliability of the tool had been tested, to use it on ancient human samples to locate signs of coronaviruses that could have passed from animals to humans, as is suspected to have happened with SARS-CoV-2.

The result: they discovered in Malaysia a coronavirus that seemed to have jumped from dogs to humans. They achieved this finding by analyzing old nasal swabs corresponding to 301 people in Sarawak, most of them children, admitted between 2017 and 2018 with pneumonia. In eight of these patients (2.7%), they found traces of RNA of a virus of this type of canine origin, as published last Thursday in the magazine Clinical Infectious Disease.

After using other, more conventional tests to confirm these findings, they detected the virus in two of the patients. After sequencing it, they identified it as a new recombined mixture of canine and feline coronavirus, never before documented.

As the researchers explain, this is the first time that a recombination of coronavirus originating in dogs and cats has been recorded in patients with pneumonia. “If confirmed as a pathogen, it would become the eighth known to cause illness in people“, they emphasize, although they insist that their finding needs a more in-depth investigation.

In addition, they highlight that this newly discovered coronavirus shares many genomic characteristics with the one that has caused the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, they warn that the study has a number of limitations, such as the fact of not having fulfilled the so-called Koch Postulates, a list of very strict requirements to be able to validate the existence of a virus and a disease. They also recognize that the detected coronavirus could simply be found in the respiratory tract of patients without being the cause of the disease.

A young man leaves a shop in the central Fuencarral street, in Madrid (Spain).

More studies needed

Researchers also denounce that coronaviruses “have not been sufficiently studied” for years, as it has been associated on many occasions with the common cold. Likewise, they refer specifically to those that come from dogs and cats and regret that they have been analyzed “sparingly”.

In this sense, they warn of the ability of this type of virus to evolve rapidly through “frequent recombination events and inducing disease of varying severity.”

“It is even more worrying when you take into account these data that indicate that the circulating coronavirus may already be transmissible to humans“, they add, referring to the one they have just identified in Malaysia.

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