A medical journal published today, 20 May, reports that a new coronavirus usually found in dogs was discovered in pneumonia patients' swab samples – taken in 2018 – in Sarawak
According to the paper written by a team of scientists from around the world — including the US, Malaysia, and China — the case is believed to be the first canine coronavirus isolated in a human patient, reported South China Morning Post.
Researchers from Duke University and Malaysia had discovered the virus while working on a project studying the causes of pneumonia and creating viral detection capacity in Sarawak.
Following the outbreak of the global pandemic last year, Dr Gregory Gray — an infectious disease epidemiologist at Duke University's Global Health Institute — and a graduate student in his lab, Leshan Xiu, decided to build a test that can detect all coronaviruses, including unidentified ones, reported NPR.
Gray and Xiu discovered evidence of a new type of coronavirus related to pneumonia in the first batch of samples tested.
The samples had come from 301 hospitalised pneumonia patients who were admitted in 2017 and 2018 at Sibu and Kapit hospitals in Sarawak.
"These were deep nasal swabs, like doctors collect with the COVID-19 patients," Gray was quoted saying by NPR.
Gray and Xiu had found that the eight out of the 301 samples from patients — who showed symptoms of regular pneumonia — had their upper respiratory tracts infected with a coronavirus only found in dogs.
The South China Morning Post reported that a canine coronavirus was successfully grown from the sample of one of the eight patients, a five-month-old baby. Gray said that after undergoing genomic sequencing, the strain was named CCoV-HuPn-2018.
The patients were mainly Indigenous groups who live in Sarawak's rural or suburban rumah panjang and villages, said Sibu Hospital head of clinical research centre Dr Toh Teck Hock
He added that these are places where human and animal interactions are frequent.
Toh — who is a paediatrician — was quoted saying by South China Morning Post that seven out of the eight patients were children.
He added that it was unlikely that the virus had transmitted among the patients as all eight individuals had come to the hospital at different times and from different areas.
According to Toh, all the eight patients had shown symptoms of pneumonia — including fever, coughing, and breathing problems. Some of them were put on oxygen ventilators.
"Luckily, all of them recovered after a few days in the hospital," he said.
It is believed that the new canine coronavirus is showing signs that it is in the process of adapting to humans and having traits similarly found in COVID-19 and SARS
Ohio State University virologist Anastasia Vlasova — who analysed the samples sent by Gray and Xiu — found that the virus transmitted between dogs, and even cats and pigs at one point.
However, she had also discovered a mutation, similarly found in SARS and strains of COVID-19, in the new virus genome that could allow animal to human transmissions to occur, reported NPR.
"Coronaviruses frequently exchange genetic components that allow some of them to adapt to humans better. Whether it makes it as an epidemic virus, we don't know, but this thing may be on its way to becoming more transmissible and a more serious pathogen," she was quoted saying by South China Morning Post.
The research into the new canine coronavirus did have limitations as there were evidence of other viral infections found in the eight patients that could have caused pneumonia instead
Gray and his team plan to follow up on the research by drawing blood samples to look for antibody evidence of the infections.
Causes of pneumonia in other countries including China, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam were also studied by the team of scientists. This is to see if other new viruses could be detected.
"To reduce the risk from these viruses as they adapt to man and become efficient in human-to-human transmission, we need to change our surveillance strategy," Gray said.
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