Worry grows as new pig virus poses possible threat to humans

15 May 2018

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The spread of a potentially dangerous cross-species virus is always cause for concern, and now a new one has just emerged.

Ebola, bird flu and swine flu are just some of the biggest cross-species viruses to make headlines over the past few decades, sparking fears that they could be the instigator of a catastrophic worldwide pandemic, which, thankfully, has so far failed to come.

A recently identified pig virus is filling researchers with fresh concern after finding that it can readily find its way into lab-cultured cells of people and other species.

In a paper published to PNAS, a team from Ohio State University and Utrecht University in the Netherlands detailed its findings on the virus identified as porcine deltacoronavirus.

How was it found?

First discovered in pigs in China in 2012, the virus was originally not associated with disease. It was again detected in US pigs in 2014, resulting in the animals having acute diarrhoea and vomiting, and a number of fatalities.

While no human cases have been documented so far, the researchers are worried because of its similarity to the life-threatening viruses responsible for SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) outbreaks.

Because the potential for a virus to jump from one species to another is highly dependent on its ability to bind to receptors on the cells of the animal or human, the researchers analysed a particular cellular receptor called aminopeptidase N, which they suspected might be involved.

How transferable is it?

“We know from other coronaviruses that these receptors on the cells are used and that they’re found in the respiratory and digestive tracts of a number of different animals,” said lead researcher Scott Kenney.

“Now we know that this new virus could go into cells of different species, including humans.”

So far during testing, the cultured cells showed that while human cells could be infected, it can also infect cells from cats and chickens, significant carriers of viruses that could potentially be easily transferred to humans.

The study’s senior author, Linda Saif, said that further research will be needed to find out exactly how transferable it is.

“We now know for sure that porcine deltacoronavirus can bind to and enter cells of humans and birds,” she said.

“Our next step is to look at susceptibility – can sick pigs transmit their virus to chickens, or vice versa, and to humans?”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic