Swine coronavirus could jump to people, researchers warn

  • SADS-CoV is an alphacoronavirus that causes severe gastrointestinal illness in swine
  • It has been shown that this virus can replicate in humans
  • This demonstrates the potential risk for future emergence events in human and animal populations

A coronavirus strain that has plagued the swine industry in recent years may have the ability to spread to people, researchers say.

Swine acute diarrhoea syndrome coronavirus (SADS-CoV) has infected swine herds throughout China since its discovery in 2016, according to a new report.

In lab tests, scientists at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill showed that SADS-CoV can replicate in human liver, gut and airway cells.

While in the same family as the betacoronavirus SARS-CoV-2 that causes Covid-19 in people, SADS-CoV is an alphacoronavirus that causes gastrointestinal illness (severe diarrhoea and vomiting) in swine. It's especially deadly to young piglets.

An equal concern to human health

SADS-CoV is also distinct from two common cold alphacoronaviruses in humans, HCoV-229E and HCoV-NL63, the study authors explained.

"While many investigators focus on the emergent potential of the betacoronaviruses like SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome] and MERS [Middle East respiratory syndrome], actually the alphacoronaviruses may prove to be an equally prominent – if not greater – concern to human health, given their potential to rapidly jump between species," study co-author Ralph Baric said in a UNC news release. He's a professor of epidemiology at the university's Gillings School of Global Public Health.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a powerful reminder that many coronavirus strains that afflict animals have the potential to transfer to humans, the researchers noted.

According to study co-author Caitlin Edwards, "SADS-CoV is derived from bat coronaviruses called HKU2, which is a heterogeneous group of viruses with a worldwide distribution." Edwards is a research specialist and master of public health student at UNC.

"It is impossible to predict if this virus, or a closely related HKU2 bat strain, could emerge and infect human populations," Edwards added. "However, the broad host range of SADS-CoV, coupled with an ability to replicate in primary human lung and enteric [gastrointestinal] cells, demonstrates potential risk for future emergence events in human and animal populations."

The findings were published online on 12 October in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Image credit: Photo by Amber Kippon Unsplash

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