NeoCov explained: Should you really worry about new coronavirus variant?


After a team of scientists from China’s Wuhan flagged concerns regarding a coronavirus strain NeoCov that is possibly deadlier than the previous variants, researchers across the world are pointing out it is yet to be studied how threatening it can be for humans.

Russian State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology Vector told news agency Sputnik that specialists are aware of the data. However, “at the moment, there are no discussions about the emergence of a new coronavirus that is ready to actively spread in the human population. The risks identified by Chinese experts are potential and require further study,” the researchers said.

Even World Health Organisation on Friday had pointed out, Whether the virus detected in the study will pose a risk for humans will require further study.

What scientists from Wuhan have found?

The Chinese scientists pointed out NeoCov, which is a close relative of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV), is discovered in a bat population in South Africa and is currently spreading only among animals.

However, the virus in question has a latent potential to mutate and penetrate the human population.  “Just one mutation is enough for the virus to be able to infiltrate human cells, claim scientists.”

Scientists had also pointed out, infection with NeoCov could not be cross-neutralized by antibodies targeting SARS-CoV-2 or MERS-CoV.

Is that enough reason to worry?

The focus of the study is based on a simple theory that if NeoCoV picks up a particular mutation only then it could use the same pathway to infect humans as the Sars-CoV-2 virus.

It is important to understand here, virologists explore multiple theories and test them using certain assumptions to represent a certain attribute or the other. It is a part of their job.

While these can identify insights for where to look for threats, it important to remember these are hypotheticals. And the fact that this paper is yet to be peer reviewed makes it even more tentative since the assumptions, methods and conclusions can only be tested for robustness by other scientists, a Hindusthan Times report pointed out.

What is NeoCOV?

NeoCoV is not a new coronavirus, and it – along with Mers – belongs to a distinctly different genera (a type of subclassification) of coronaviruses known as merbecovirus. This is the type to which the other common cold coronaviruses HKU1 and OC43 belong. Recombination though not impossible, it is rarely seen.

But one of the most key factors to remember is that the Chinese scientists themselves find that the NeoCoV does not infect human ACE2 at present, which means it cannot infect humans yet. What they stress on instead are the “latent potential” of such viruses in the future and the important of surveillance and research on these viruses, the Hindustan Times report pointed out.

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