News stories this week claimed a “new Covid variant” known as “NeoCoV” had emerged and threatened higher infection and mortality rates than previous strains of the virus that caused the global pandemic.
However, the truth is more complicated – and potentially less alarming.
The reports cite a study, not yet peer-reviewed, published by Chinese researchers in the BioRxiv journal earlier this week.
NeoCoV is not in fact a new variant of the coronavirus that has caused the global pandemic. Instead, it is derived from a different type of coronavirus related to Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers-CoV.)
Mers-CoV whose origins are not fully understood, is a virus that was transferred to humans from infected dromedary (Arabian) camels.
The virus is zoonotic, meaning it is transmitted between animals and people and is contractable through direct or indirect contact with animals.
“Mers-CoV has been identified in dromedaries in several countries in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia,” the World Health Organisation says.
“In total, 27 countries have reported cases since 2012, leading to 858 known deaths due to the infection and related complications.”
It adds: “According to the analysis of different virus genomes it is believed that it may have originated in bats and later transmitted to camels at some point in the distant past.”
WHO says 35 per cent of patients infected with Mers-Covid have died, although this may be an overestimate as mild cases may have been “missed by existing surveillance systems”.
NeoCov is a relative of Mers-CoV and circulates in bats. In the study published this week, the Wuhan-based scientists warned that NeoCoV could cause problems if it is transferred from bats to humans.
This particular coronavirus does not appear to be neutralised by human antibodies which are trained for targeting SARS-CoV-2 ,the virus that causes Covid-19, or MERS-Cov.
The study suggests there’s a potential threat of NeoCoV infecting humans, but no evidence that it has done so far or no indication of how transmissible or fatal it would be.
Laboratory tests also suggest that NeoCov’s ability to infect human cells is poor.
“We need to see more data confirming human infection and associated severity before getting anxious,” Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at Warwick University, told The Independent.
“The pre-print [study] suggests that infection of human cells with Neocov is extremely inefficient.
“What this does highlight, however, is the need to be vigilant about the spill over of coronavirus infections from animals (mainly bats) to humans.
“This is an essential lesson we need to learn that requires better integration of infectious disease research in humans and animals.”