Where Might the Next Coronavirus Come From? Animals May Play a Big Factor, Study Says

Photo of a hedgehog and a rabbit in an open field.
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Will domesticated or wild animals be the next carriers of COVID-19?

A team of scientists in the UK are trying to find that out using a combination of artificial intelligence and biology in search for viruses emerging in animal populations. This study may help reduce the risk of emergence in human populations, according to a report.

Their computer algorithm predicted many more potential hosts of new virus strains than have previously been detected. And, scientists say these findings could help to target the surveillance for new diseases, possibly helping prevent the next pandemic before its starts, the BBC reported.

These new findings were published in the journal Nature Communications on Tuesday.

“We want to know where the next coronavirus might come from,” said Dr. Marcus Blagrove, a University of Liverpool virologist who worked on the study.

Blagrove told the BBC that one way they're generated is through recombination between two existing coronaviruses. For example, two viruses infect the same cell and they recombine into a "daughter" virus that would be an entirely new strain.

Researchers explained that they were able to do this by “asking” their algorithm to use the biological pattern to predict which mammals may be susceptible to known coronaviruses, which revealed links between 411 strains of coronavirus and 876 potential mammal species, the BBC reported.

Lead researcher Dr. Maya Wardeh, from the University of Liverpool, and her team used existing biological knowledge to teach the algorithm to search for patterns that made this more likely to happen. More mammals were found to be potential hosts for new coronaviruses than previous surveillance work, screening animals for viruses, had shown.

The Asian palm civet and greater horseshoe bat were predicted to be host to 32 and 68 different coronaviruses. 

And in species including the common hedgehog, the European rabbit and the dromedary camel, the algorithm predicted that Sars-CoV-2 might recombine with other, existing coronaviruses, Nature Asia reported.

Wardeh pointed out that the spread of such viruses into the human population tends to be linked to human activities, such as wildlife trading and farming. She also noted people should not “demonize” these species. ”It's virtually impossible to survey all animals all the time, so our approach enables prioritization,” she said.

“If we can find them before they get into humans," said Blagrove. "Then we could work on developing drugs and vaccines and on stopping them from getting into humans in the first place."

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the risk of animals spreading COVID-19 to people is considered to be low, based on the limited information available to date. "We are still learning about this virus, but it appears that it can spread from people to animals in some situations," the CDC said. "People with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 should avoid contact with animals, including pets, livestock, and wildlife."


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