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NeoCoV alert: Why you do not need to be worried and what original study on it says

NeoCoV has not yet been found in humans. It has not caused any human deaths. But there’s suddenly chatter around NeoCoV while the world grapples with the Covid-19 pandemic. Do you need to be worried? What does the study that sparked all this talk actually say? We break it down for you.

From Alpha to Delta to Omicron, a bunch of Greek letters have suddenly entered our lives recently, courtesy Covid-19. Caused by a novel coronavirus first reported in China in late 2019 and later formally named SARS-CoV-2, Covid-19 has held the world hostage for two years now. The Covid-19 pandemic has also, understandably, left people with a perpetual fear: What is that next virus that will cause yet another pandemic, lead to massive deaths, and shut down lives all over the globe? Enter NeoCoV.

The online space was set ablaze with chatter around ‘NeoCoV’ this week. By late Friday (January 28), ‘NeoCoV’ was a top search term in India with more than five lakh searches, according to Google. The ominous name led to the most obvious worry: OMG, here’s another variant of the coronavirus out to get us just as we kind of seem to be getting off the Omicron variant-induced third wave.

Right off the bat (pun really not intended), let us tell you that NeoCoV is NOT a new variant of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19. All this talk of NeoCoV is thanks to a yet-to-be-peer-reviewed study (more on this later) released by a group of Chinese scientists, some of whom are from the Wuhan University. Cov, China, Wuhan (the epicentre of the ongoing pandemic)… That’s all the right boxes ticked and it’s hardly surprising for panic to spread.

However, there is nothing for you to be immediately concerned about NeoCoV. We’re going to explain why and tell you what the study that has sparked all this chatter is about.

WHAT IS NEOCOV?

NeoCoV is a term loosely being used to refer to a virus variant linked to MERS-CoV. MERS-CoV belongs to the larger coronavirus family and is one of the seven known coronaviruses that can infect humans. MERS-CoV caused large outbreaks in Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and South Korea during the 2010s. According to the World Health Organisation, approximately 35% of reported patients with MERS-CoV infection have died. NeoCoV is a possible variant of this particular coronavirus.

IS NEOCOV NEW? HAS IT JUST BEEN DISCOVERED?

Since NeoCoV is not really a formal designation, it’s difficult to trace the etymology of the term. Experts have pointed out on Twitter that it’s neither a new coronavirus nor a new mutation or variant. Even the research paper that sparked the viral talk around NeoCoV does not say that it’s some new form of the novel coronavirus.

WHAT DOES THE NEOCOV RESEARCH PAPER SAY?

If you’re interested, you can scroll to the bottom of this article to read researchers’ own summary of their paper. But in case you want the brief, non-jargon version of it, these are the broad points:

1. NeoCoV is the closest MERS-CoV relative yet discovered and is found in bats

2. NeoCoV can efficiently use some types of bat ACE2 (a type of cells that in biology are called receptors) to cause an infection

3. NeoCoV can infect human ACE2 cells after a T510F mutation

SO, WHY SHOULD YOU NOT BE WORRIED ABOUT NEOCOV?

Essentially, what the research paper is saying is that NeoCoV, which has so far been found only in bats, may be able to infect humans if it undergoes a particular type of mutation. That’s a lot of hypothesising. A lot of hypothesising that’s based on a laboratory study that is yet to be peer-reviewed, which is a rigorous process that involves experts not connected to the study in question analysing the findings and methods of the original researchers.

The idea that NeoCoV may be able to infect human beings is in the realms of theory right now and so, should not be a cause of immediate concern.

WHAT THE NEOCOV RESEARCH PAPER ACTUALLY SAYS

In case you’re interested, here’s the study summary that the researchers wrote themselves. Do note that the summary (formally called abstract) is jargon heavy and that the findings have not been peer-reviewed.

“Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) and several bat coronaviruses employ Dipeptidyl peptidase-4 (DPP4) as their functional receptors. However, the receptor for NeoCoV, the closest MERS-CoV relative yet discovered in bats, remains enigmatic. In this study, we unexpectedly found that NeoCoV and its close relative, PDF-2180-CoV, can efficiently use some types of bat Angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) and, less favorably, human ACE2 for entry. The two viruses use their spikes’ S1 subunit carboxyl-terminal domains (S1-CTD) for high-affinity and species-specific ACE2 binding. Cryo-electron microscopy analysis revealed a novel coronavirus-ACE2 binding interface and a protein-glycan interaction, distinct from other known ACE2-using viruses. We identified a molecular determinant close to the viral binding interface that restricts human ACE2 from supporting NeoCoV infection, especially around residue Asp338. Conversely, NeoCoV efficiently infects human ACE2 expressing cells after a T510F mutation on the receptor-binding motif (RBM). Notably, the infection could not be cross-neutralized by antibodies targeting SARS-CoV-2 or MERS-CoV. Our study demonstrates the first case of ACE2 usage in MERS-related viruses, shedding light on a potential bio-safety threat of the human emergence of an ACE2 using ‘MERS-CoV-2’ with both high fatality and transmission rate.”

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