Nav: Home

The genetic quest to understand COVID-19

March 26, 2020

How the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 made the leap from animals to humans is a puzzle that scientists are trying to solve as humanity comes to grip with the deadly pandemic sweeping the globe.

At the frontline of this scientific work is Professor Edward Holmes, an evolutionary virologist who holds a joint position with the School of Life and Environmental Sciences and the School of Medical Sciences at the University of Sydney.

He has been working closely with scientists in China and around the world to unlock the genetic code of SARS-CoV-2, which is the virus that causes COVID-19, to understand its origins and assist in the race other scientists are engaged in to find an effective vaccine.

Their work will also help in the monitoring and prevention of other viruses that could potentially transfer from wildlife into humans, causing what are known as zoonotic diseases.

Already this year, Professor Holmes has co-authored four papers on the novel coronavirus, including two of the earliest descriptions of the virus (published in Nature and The Lancet).

This week he publishes two more.

Brought forward for early publication on Thursday by Nature after peer review, the first paper identifies a similar coronavirus to the one now infecting humans in the Malayan pangolin population of southern China. Professor Holmes, a co-author, is the only non-China based academic on the paper.

Understanding the evolutionary pathway by which this novel coronavirus has transferred to humans will help us not only combat the current pandemic but assist in identifying future threats from other coronaviruses in other species.

This paper is an important part of solving that puzzle.

Professor Holmes said: "The role that pangolins play in the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 (the cause of COVID-19) is still unclear. However, it is striking is that the pangolin viruses contain some genomic regions that are very closely related to the human virus. The most important of these is the receptor binding domain that dictates how the virus is able to attach and infect human cells."

The paper identifies pangolins as possible intermediate hosts for the novel human virus that has emerged. The authors call for these animals and others to be removed from wet markets in order to prevent zoonotic transmission to humans.

Professor Holmes said: "It is clear that wildlife contains many coronaviruses that could potentially emerge in humans in the future. A crucial lesson from this pandemic to help prevent the next one is that humans must reduce their exposure to wildlife, for example by banning 'wet markets' and the trade in wildlife."

Just last week Nature Medicine published research co-authored by Professor Holmes with scientists from Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla California, the University of Edinburgh, Columbia University in New York and Tulane University, New Orleans.

That paper has dispelled the fanciful idea that the novel coronavirus was a manufactured biological agent.

Using comparative analysis of genomic data, the scientists show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.

Professor Holmes said: "There is simply no evidence that SARS-CoV-2 - the cause of COVID-19 - came out of a lab. In reality, this is the sort of natural disease emergence event that researchers in the field like myself have been warning about for many years."

That paper has quickly become the highest ranked academic study of all time as measured by Altmetric, a company that monitors media coverage of research papers.

"The high Altmetric is a strong indication of the remarkable global interest in this topic," Professor Holmes said.

And today, Professor Holmes publishes a commentary in the journal Cell with his colleague Professor Yong-Zhen Zhang from the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Centre and the School of Life Science at Fudan University, Shanghai.

In that article they outline our current knowledge of what the genomic data reveals about the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 virus and discuss the gaps in our knowledge.

This includes taking samples from the Wuhan wet market where it is believed the virus originated. The paper says that "genome sequences of 'environmental samples' - likely surfaces - from the market have now been obtained and phylogenetic analysis reveals that they are very closely related to viruses sampled from the earliest Wuhan patients".

However, Professor Holmes and Professor Zhang are quick to point out that as "not all of the early [COVID-19] cases were market associated, it is possible that the emergence story is more complicated than first suspected".

The paper says that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is likely to become the fifth endemic coronavirus in the human population. It concludes that "coronaviruses clearly have the capacity to jump species boundaries and adapt to new hosts, making it straightforward to predict that more will emerge in the future".

How we respond to that will require more research to assist develop public health policy.

They point to policy and other measures to help prevent other coronaviruses becoming a health danger to humans. These include:
    - Surveillance of animal coronaviruses in a variety of mammalian species. It is known that bats carry many coronaviruses, we know little about what other species carry these viruses and which has the potential to emerge in humans.

    - Increase action against the illegal wildlife trade of exotic animals

    - Removal of mammalian and perhaps avian wildlife from wet markets
DOWNLOAD photos of Professor Holmes at this link.


Unfortunately, Professor Holmes is too engaged in research on the novel coronavirus for interviews at this stage. For any media enquiries contact Marcus Strom.


Marcus Strom | | +61 423 982 485

University of Sydney

Related Pandemic Articles:

The world faces an air pollution 'pandemic'
Air pollution is responsible for shortening people's lives worldwide on a scale far greater than wars and other forms of violence, parasitic and insect-born diseases such as malaria, HIV/AIDS and smoking, according to a study published in Cardiovascular Research.
Justinianic plague not a landmark pandemic?
A study of diverse datasets, including pollen, coinage, and funeral practices, reveals that the effects of the late antique plague pandemic commonly known as the Justinianic Plague may have been overestimated.
The diabetes pandemic and the promise of connected care
Digital diabetes management systems ('connected diabetes care') have the potential to become part of a new diabetes care model, augmenting the traditional practice of diabetes care by providing continuous and on-demand care that aligns with the 24/7 demands of diabetes as a chronic disease.
Flu virus could evolve resistance to pandemic drug
The influenza virus can evolve resistance to an anti-flu drug currently in development for use in pandemics but only if there are multiple genetic mutations, a study has found.
Lessons from the 1918 flu pandemic, 100 years on
With flu season nearly upon us, a new study looks at the factors behind the extremely high mortality of the 1918 flu pandemic and how to prepare for future outbreaks.
Dogs can be a potential risk for future influenza pandemic
Dogs are a potential reservoir for a future influenza pandemic, according to a study published in the journal mBio.
Report identifies characteristics of microorganisms most likely to cause a global pandemic
A potential global catastrophic risk-level pandemic pathogen will most likely have a respiratory mode of transmission; be contagious during the incubation period, prior to symptom development, or when infected individuals show only mild symptoms; and need specific host population factors (e.g., immunologically naïve persons) and additional intrinsic microbial pathogenicity characteristics (e.g., a low but significant case fatality rate) that together substantially increase disease spread and infection.
Pandemic risk: How large are the expected losses?
Greater investment is needed to prepare against pandemics -- the worldwide spread of an infectious disease.
Parkinson's disease: A looming pandemic
New research shows that the number of people with Parkinson's disease will soon grow to pandemic proportions.
Vaccines do work for pandemic flu, says study
Vaccines are successful in preventing pandemic flu and reducing the number of patients hospitalized as a result of the illness, a study led by academics at the University of Nottingham has found.
More Pandemic News and Pandemic Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

There's so much we've yet to explore–from outer space to the deep ocean to our own brains. This hour, Manoush goes on a journey through those uncharted places, led by TED Science Curator David Biello.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#555 Coronavirus
It's everywhere, and it felt disingenuous for us here at Science for the People to avoid it, so here is our episode on Coronavirus. It's ok to give this one a skip if this isn't what you want to listen to right now. Check out the links below for other great podcasts mentioned in the intro. Host Rachelle Saunders gets us up to date on what the Coronavirus is, how it spreads, and what we know and don't know with Dr Jason Kindrachuk, Assistant Professor in the Department of Medical Microbiology and infectious diseases at the University of Manitoba. And...
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dispatch 1: Numbers
In a recent Radiolab group huddle, with coronavirus unraveling around us, the team found themselves grappling with all the numbers connected to COVID-19. Our new found 6 foot bubbles of personal space. Three percent mortality rate (or 1, or 2, or 4). 7,000 cases (now, much much more). So in the wake of that meeting, we reflect on the onslaught of numbers - what they reveal, and what they hide.  Support Radiolab today at