Coronavirus detected in bats shows resistance to vaccines

·2 min read

Story at a glance

  • Researchers are studying the coronavirus in animals to get an understanding of what is circulating in animal populations.

  • One study finds a bat coronavirus can enter human cells.

  • In laboratory tests, it was also able to resist antibodies from SARS-CoV-2.

The World Health Organization’s Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in May that because of reduced testing and sequencing “we are blinding ourselves to the evolution of the virus.” Similarly, because coronaviruses are found in other mammals, it is important to be aware of what is circulating among animal populations. A team of researchers at Washington State University and Tulane University School of Medicine is aiming to do just that.

In a paper published in PLoS Pathogens, they detail two coronaviruses detected in a population of horseshoe bats in Russia. The lineages of the viruses are separate from original SARS-CoV-1 from 2003 and SARS-CoV-2, which is responsible for the current pandemic.

However, the researchers think that it is useful to study coronaviruses in wild animals to understand viral evolution and potential for crossover into humans.

They sequenced the bat coronaviruses and tested them in the laboratory against human cells. The bat viruses had a receptor binding domain, a part of the virus that can bind to molecules on the membranes of cells, that were able to help them enter human cells.

The team also tested the viruses against SARS-CoV-2 monoclonal antibodies and serum from individuals vaccinated for SARS-CoV-2 that contained antibodies. One of the two bat coronaviruses was resistant to both monoclonal antibodies and vaccine-induced antibodies. They had a similar result when they tested it against antibodies from someone who recovered from an infection of an omicron variant.

“We don’t want to scare anybody and say this is a completely vaccine-resistant virus,” says Michael Letko, who is assistant professor in the Paul Allen School of Public Health at Washington State University and led the study, to TIME. “But it is concerning that there are viruses circulating in nature that have these properties—they can bind to human receptors and are not so neutralized by current vaccine responses.”

One of the main concerns is if these bat coronaviruses can combine with SARS-CoV-2 and lead to new variants. If these new variants inherit immune evasive characteristics, that could be a problem for us.

While it’s not a signal for alarm, studies like this will be important to know what lineages and versions of coronaviruses are circulating in the wild and how they may relate to what’s circulating in humans. Letko says, “These viruses are really widespread everywhere, and are going to continue to be an issue for humans in general.”

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