Analysis: Has COVID-19 been around for 70 years?

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FILE - This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, yellow, emerging from the surface of cells, pink, cultured in the lab. Also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus causes COVID-19. The sample was isolated from a patient in the U.S. On Friday, May 29, 2020, The Associated Press reported on stories circulating online incorrectly asserting that coronavirus has an HIV protein that proves it was genetically modified. Experts say the coronavirus has no HIV sequences in it's genetic makeup. Since the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, social media posts have tried to cast doubt on its origins. (NIAID-RML via AP)

FILE - This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, yellow, emerging from the surface of cells, pink, cultured in the lab. Also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus causes COVID-19. The sample was isolated from a patient in the U.S. On Friday, May 29, 2020, The Associated Press reported on stories circulating online incorrectly asserting that coronavirus has an HIV protein that proves it was genetically modified. Experts say the coronavirus has no HIV sequences in it’s genetic makeup. Since the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, social media posts have tried to cast doubt on its origins. (NIAID-RML via AP)

AP

Has the coronavirus been around for decades? Maybe, according to a consortium of researchers from the United States, China and Europe.

It has proven difficult to pick apart the genetic lineage of the virus. But, now an international team of scientists say they’ve done it, and found clues (and warnings) about both the history of this virus and the presence of its relatives.

The problem, as was explained in a release from the University of Glasgow, is that the coronavirus is “highly recombinant, meaning different regions of the virus’s genome can be derived from multiple sources,” said Maciej Boni, associate professor of biology at Penn State. “This has made it difficult to reconstruct SARS-CoV-2’s origins. You have to identify all the regions that have been recombining and trace their histories.”

The research findings, which were published yesterday in the journal Nature Microbiology, suggest that the virus that causes COVID-19 may have been circulating among bat populations for as much as 70 years.

Importantly, one aspect of the virus (the part that allows the virus to identify and bind to human cells) is common to other, similar viruses. That’s … not a good thing, according to David L. Robertson, professor of computational virology, MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research.

“This means that other viruses that are capable of infecting humans are circulating in horseshoe bats in China,” he said.

The good news is that another feature of the virus that allows it to infect human hosts “has not yet been seen in another close bat relative of the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” according to Robertson.

The bad news is, this research suggests that more pandemics are likely.

“We were too late in responding to the initial SARS-CoV-2 outbreak, but this will not be our last coronavirus pandemic,” Boni said.