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

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24
Voting Booth
Have you entered our Health of the Nation survey?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
34% - 9269 votes
66% - 17869 votes