A newly discovered virus similar to the virus that causes COVID-19 has been found in a Russian bat and could spread to humans, researchers at Washington State University say.
According to WSU, a team led by researchers at the Paul G. Allen School for Global Health found spike proteins from the bat virus, named Khosta-2, can infect human cells and is resistant to both the monoclonal antibodies and serum from people who’ve been vaccinated for COVID-19.
Khosta-2 and SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, belong to the same sub-category of coronaviruses called sarbecoviruses.
"Our research further demonstrates that [viruses] circulating in wildlife outside of Asia – even in places like western Russia where the Khosta-2 virus was found – also pose a threat to global health and ongoing vaccine campaigns against SARS-CoV-2," said Michael Letko, WSU virologist and an author of the study published in the journal PLoS Pathogens.
Letko said the discovery of Khosta-2 highlights the need for universal vaccines to protect against this subcategory of coronaviruses in general, rather than just against known variants of SARS-CoV-2.
"Right now, there are groups trying to come up with a vaccine that doesn’t just protect against the next variant of SARS-2 but actually protects us against the sarbecoviruses in general," Letko said. "Unfortunately, many of our current vaccines are designed to specific viruses we know infect human cells or those that seem to pose the biggest risk to infect us. But that is a list that’s everchanging. We need to broaden the design of these vaccines to protect against all sarbecoviruses."
Researchers said hundreds of sarbecoviruses have been discovered in recent years, predominantly in bats in Asia, but the majority are not capable of infecting human cells. The Khosta-1 and Khosta-2 viruses were discovered in Russian bats in late 2020, and it initially appeared they were not a threat to humans.
"Genetically, these weird Russian viruses looked like some of the others that had been discovered elsewhere around the world, but because they did not look like SARS-CoV-2, no one thought they were really anything to get too excited about," Letko said. "But when we looked at them more, we were really surprised to find they could infect human cells. That changes a little bit of our understanding of these viruses, where they come from and what regions are concerning."
Letko and other WSU virologists studied the viruses further and determined that Khosta-1 posed low risk to humans, but Khosta-2 showed "some troubling traits."
Like SARS-CoV-2, Khosta-2 can use its spike protein to infect cells by attaching to a receptor protein found throughout human cells.
Using serum derived from people vaccinated for COVID-19, the team saw that Khosta-2 was not neutralized by current vaccines. They also tested serum from people who were infected with the omicron variant, but those antibodies were also ineffective.
Fortunately, Letko said, the new virus is lacking some of the genes believed to be involved in spreading to humans. There is a risk, however, of Khosta-2 recombining with a second virus like SARS-CoV-2.
"When you see SARS-2 has this ability to spill back from humans and into wildlife, and then there are other viruses like Khosta-2 waiting in those animals with these properties we really don’t want them to have, it sets up this scenario where you keep rolling the dice until they combine to make a potentially riskier virus," Letko said.