Coronavirus has swept across the planet since the first cases were confirmed in Wuhan, China, at the end of December, 2019. The origin of the disease has remained a mystery, with many claiming it came from animals in a wet market in Wuhan, and others claiming it was a lab-made disease.
However, new research has discovered the virus, called SARS-CoV-2, may have been circulating harmlessly in humans for years before finally mutating into the deadly disease we see today.
Research from scientists from the US, UK and Australia wrote in a study published in Nature Medicine: “It is possible that a progenitor of SARS-CoV-2 jumped into humans, acquiring [new genomic features] through adaptation during undetected human-to-human transmission.
“Once acquired, these adaptations would enable the pandemic to take off and produce a sufficiently large cluster of cases.”
By analysing the genomic data available from SARS-CoV-2, scientists noticed that the receptor-binding domain (RBD) sections of SARS-CoV-2 were so effective that they must have evolved as such.
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This suggests the virus has already swept through humans, before essentially mutating into what it is now by natural selection.
Researcher and immunologist Kristian Andersen at Scripps Research said: “By comparing the available genome sequence data for known coronavirus strains, we can firmly determine that SARS-CoV-2 originated through natural processes.
“Two features of the virus, the mutations in the RBD portion of the spike protein and its distinct backbone, rules out laboratory manipulation as a potential origin for SARS-CoV-2.”
This effectively rules out the possibility that the disease was lab-made and hints that it originated in an animal before it was transmitted to humans.
The study said: “Although no animal coronavirus has been identified that is sufficiently similar to have served as the direct progenitor of SARS-CoV-2, the diversity of coronaviruses in bats and other species is massively undersampled.”
Another possibility is that it has been in humans for a while, slowly mutating to become the effective killer that it currently is.
Director of the National Institute of Health, Francis Collins wrote on the NIH blog: “The second scenario is that the new coronavirus crossed from animals into humans before it became capable of causing human disease.
“Then, as a result of gradual evolutionary changes over years or perhaps decades, the virus eventually gained the ability to spread from human-to-human and cause serious, often life-threatening disease.”
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