Since the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has plunged the whole world into an unprecedented health crisis, researchers are now starting to worry about another type of coronavirus that could be a lot more dangerous that we thought. This strain is known as SADS-CoV and we have known about its ability to infect a large number of pigs for years. However, a recent study has suggested that it could also infect human cells. Should we be worried?
A dangerous coronavirus that causes severe symptoms
SADS-CoV was discovered in pigs in China in 2016. It’s name means ‘Swine acute diarrhoea syndrome coronavirus’ and although it belongs to the same family as the coronavirus strain responsible for COVID-19, it is slightly different. SARS-CoV-2 is a so-called betacoronavirus, whereas SADS-CoV is an alphacoronavirus. One thing the two viruses have in common is that they can both be transmitted to humans, but unlike COVID-19, SADS-CoV has contaminated pigs instead of bats.
When the pigs were contaminated, they developed symptoms similar to those associated with porcine epidemic diarrhoea virus, which mostly included vomiting and acute diarrhoea. It has proven to be very fatal, especially for piglets under 5 days old when the mortality rate is higher than 90%. Although SARS-CoV-2 mainly affects the lungs, this strain primarily attacks the intestines.
The next pandemic?
Until recently, scientists believed that this type of coronavirus was harmless to humans. But a study published on 12th October 2020 in PNAS by researchers from the University of North Carolina shows that SADS-CoV can also invade human cells. As it turns out, scientists have successfully used this virus to infect human cells in the lungs, liver… but most notably, those in the intestines. They also managed to infect cells in other mammals without too much difficulty.
In the article that revealed this study, Professor Ralph Baric, co-author of the study, explained:
While many investigators focus on the emergent potential of the betacoronavirus like SARS and MERS, actually the alphacoronavirus may prove equally prominent—if not greater—concerns to human health, given their potential to rapidly jump between species.
Do we already have an effective treatment?
The authors of the study say that pig farms need to be very careful and closely monitored so that they will know early on if animal-to-human transmission occurs. Without this surveillance in place, the consequences could be dramatic and another pandemic could follow. Especially, since, without even taking into account the consequences related to a possible human pandemic, the spread of the virus among pigs could have serious economic repercussions.
In the meantime, tests are currently being carried out in labs to determine, as quickly as possible, how to combat this potential threat. And good news, it seems that remdesivir, which we are currently using against SARS-CoV-2, could also be effective against SADS-CoV. More in-depth research will need to be carried out in order to prevent a potential future pandemic and avoid having the relive the same disaster that we are currently experiencing.