COVID-19 closely resembles the virus that caused the outbreak of the SARS epidemic in China 17 years ago and was not a surprise to experts in the field, according to a specialist at a leading research center that studied the virus.
Kenneth Plante, a director at the World Reference Center for Emerging Viruses and Arboviruses, a repository of viruses at University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, has been studying the virus since early February.
Both the 2003 SARS virus and the new strain this year originated from bats in China and mutated in ways that allowed infections in humans, he said.
“The interesting thing about this virus is that it does mimic its sibling, the standard SARS coronavirus,” Mr. Plante said.
Researchers so far have learned much about the new virus and are working to validate how close its characteristics are to SARS.
“Some people have been hypothesizing this virus coming out for years,” Mr. Plante said. “And when it finally did come out, it came out pretty close to what people would expect it to emerge as.”
Mr. Plante said there are signs the virus is mutating from its original form.
“This virus has been actually remarkably stable in our hands,” he noted. “But there is a possibility that we could see some further mutations that could change the [characteristics] of this virus.”
Researchers believe the current virus was transmitted from bats to another animal host and then to humans. Another mutation allowed it to spread rapidly among humans.
China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology, after initially agreeing to provide virus samples to the center, declined to supply any samples, Mr. Plante said in the interview late last week. The first U.S. samples were obtained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from a patient in Washington state and sent to the Texas virus center on Feb. 6.
The center has sent the samples on to more than 100 research and diagnostic centers mainly in the United States. The best researchers in the world are working on determining how the virus functions, how it spreads and how it can be stopped.
“We already have infectious clones; we already know the receptor,” he said in an interview. “There are animals already in place and with laboratories, repositories that are being collaborative, we are getting a lot of work done very quickly.”
The similarities to the earlier SARS virus, which spread to around 8,000 people worldwide and killed almost 800, are still being studied.
By contrast, the new virus has infected over 680,000 people and caused nearly 32,000 deaths worldwide.
“Thankfully, the case fatality rate is lower with this virus, though it does seem to be more transmissible,” Mr. Plante said.
The origin of the virus is still unknown and according to the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, the president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences initially agreed that the Wuhan Institute of Virology would share virus samples with the Texas center. But after some discussions, the provision of samples, “never actually happened,” Mr. Plante said.
Mr. Plante dismissed the one theory about the virus — that the virus was being researched at a laboratory in Wuhan, and may have escaped through mishandling of infected animals, or an accidental infection of a lab worker. It also undercuts a Chinese-pushed conspiracy theory that somehow a U.S. Army team participating in the World Military Games in Wuhan last year brought the virus with them.
“There’s a lot of conspiracy theories that this came out of a biocontainment facility and things of that sort,” he said. “But these viruses are closely related to bats.”
“I’ve seen no evidence this is a virus that came out of a lab,” he added. “This appeared in an area where it was hypothesized to appear. Close contact with animals that have zoonotic virus and people like we’re seeing in these wet markets are prime places for these zoonoses to emerge into human populations.”
Zoonosis is a disease transmitted from animals to humans.
On China’s lack of cooperation, Mr. Plante said China recently has been slightly more forthcoming but that tight political controls have limited more cooperation.
“Samples… are notoriously difficult to get out of China,” he said, noting the political climate and regulations.
Data sharing among nations outside of China picked up as the virus spread as the nations understood the severity of the outbreak and need to respond rapidly.