Asia suffered a severe coronavirus epidemic 20,000 years ago

Updated Thursday, June 24, 2021 –

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The current coronavirus pandemic has led researchers to look back for other precedents. In the last 20 years alone, there have been two other coronaviruses that caused fatalities, although their scope was much less than the current SARS-COV-2, the cause of the Covid-19 pandemic that has already killed 3.8 million people. people all over the world.

In 2002, SARS-CoV emerged in China, leading to another respiratory disease, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), which caused the death of 800 people. In 2012, the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV, from which more than 850 people died) was identified.

Zoontic viruses have been known to cause epidemics and pandemics in human populations for centuries. But now, by analyzing modern genomes, an international team of researchers has been able to discover that 20,000 years ago, a large coronavirus outbreak affected the territory that is now East Asia. The ancestors of the inhabitants of this region suffered an epidemic of a disease induced by a coronavirus that was probably similar to the SARS-CoV-2 that has caused Covid-19.

As they explain this Thursday in the magazine Current Biology, used data from 1,000 genomes project, the largest public catalog of genetic variations, and examined changes in human genes that encode proteins that interact with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.

Kirill Alexandrov, professor of synthetic biology at Queensland University of Technology (QUT), in Australia, and lead author of the study, explains that they used “contemporary genomes in which bioinformatics analysis was able to identify changes in genes that interact with viruses that they appeared a long time ago. “

Specifically, they synthesized human and SARS-CoV-2 proteins and, together with the work of the team’s computational scientists, who applied evolutionary analysis to the human genomic data set, discovered evidence that the ancestors of today’s East Asian population suffered from that disease.

According to the Russian scientist via email, his study “offers circumstantial evidence to support whate that virus was quite similar to the current SARS-Cov-2. However, although it is unlikely, we cannot completely rule out that it was a totally different virus that attacked the same human genes that SARS-Cov-2 attacks. “

The epidemic will have affected inhabitants of the areas now occupied by China, Japan, Mongolia, North Korea, South Korea and Taiwan. “This ancient virus it must have been widespread and must have infected a large proportion of the ancient inhabitants of East Asia to have triggered the strong selection events that we observe in the genomes of East Asian people, “says his colleague David Enard, a bioinformatics specialist at the University of Arizona and a co-author of the study.

“From my point of view, to generate a genetic signature of these characteristics, the virus had to affect a significant population”, agrees Alexandrov.

Furthermore, the authors believe that in the course of the epidemic, selection favored human gene variants that presumably led to less severe disease.

Read the past in the genes

Alexandrov compares the information of the past that modern genetic data can provide with that of tree rings: “The modern human genome contains evolutionary information dating back tens of thousands of years, in the same way that studying the rings of a tree provides us with information about the conditions it experienced as it grew, “says Alexandrov, from the Alliance for Synthetic Biology CSIRO-QUT and the Center for Genomics and Personalized Health.

According to this specialist in genetics, “by better understanding these ancient viruses that have affected humans, we are able to understand how the genomes of different human populations adapted to them, and we acquire the ability to identify viruses that have caused epidemics in the distant past and they can do it in the future. ” This aspect, he adds, could be useful “to compile a list of potentially dangerous viruses and develop diagnoses, vaccines and drugs in the event that they return.”

Regarding the possibility of finding more coronavirus epidemics in the past in other geographical areas of the world, Enard says that it is possible to do so by specifically examining more recent adaptations: “In fact, we can look for signatures of older virus epidemics in any human population with a large enough number of sequenced genomes. Once this is done, we can look at each of the populations if they suffered epidemics caused by coronavirus or other different types of virus, my laboratory is working on it, and we are focusing first in ancient coronaviruses because of the urgency of the current epidemic. ”

Obstacles to Predicting the Next Pandemic

And while some scientists are focused on looking for past coronaviruses, others are trying to determine whether it is possible to predict when and in which group of animals the next virus pandemic is likely to emerge. The fact that most of the viruses that cause human disease come from other animals has encouraged several teams to try to develop what they have called ‘zoontic risk prediction’. However, a recent study published in the journal PLOS Biology I was pouring a jug of cold water into that line of work.

According to the team led by Michelle Wille of the University of Sydney, these zoontic predictions have limited value and will not tell us which viruses will cause the next pandemic.

As an example they mention the current pandemic. SARS-CoV-2 emerged from an animal species but we are not yet sure which species.

Wille and his colleagues argue that the prediction of zoonotic risk meets three obstacles. First, it relies on collections of tiny data. Despite the fact that it has been worked for decades, less than 0.001% of all viruses have been identified, even mammalian species from which the next pandemic is likely to emerge.

Second, they claim that these data are also heavily biased towards viruses that most infect humans or domestic animals, or are already known to be zoonotic. The truth is that virus has not been searched for in most animal species, Furthermore, viruses evolve so rapidly that any such study will soon become out of date and therefore of limited value.

From your point of view, It will be necessary to focus on carrying out an intensive surveillance of the viruses that emerge. Thus, they propose to extensively sample animals and humans in the places where they interact. This approach, they argue, makes it possible to detect new viruses as soon as they appear in people and before they trigger pandemics. In this way, there will be more possibilities to avoid a pandemic such as Covid-19.

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