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Evidence points to human susceptibility to SADS swine virus

TAGS: Swine
pigs Patarapong/iStock/Thinkstock
Baric Lab looking for partners to investigate potential SADS-CoV vaccine candidates to protect swine.

New research from the Baric Lab at the University of North Carolina (UNC) Gillings School of Global Public Health suggests that a strain of coronavirus that has recently been circulating the swine industry may have the potential to spread to people as well, UNC said in an announcement.

This coronavirus strain, known as swine acute diarrhea syndrome coronavirus (SADS-CoV), emerged from bats and has been infecting swine herds throughout China since it was first discovered in 2016, UNC said. The virus causes severe diarrhea and vomiting and has been especially deadly to young piglets. Outbreaks of such an illness have the potential to wreak economic havoc in many countries across the globe that rely on the pork industry.

While SARS-CoV-2 -- the virus that causes the human respiratory illness COVID-19 -- is a betacoronavirus, SADS-CoV is an alphacoronavirus that causes gastrointestinal illness in swine, UNC noted. SADS-COV is also distinct from two circulating common cold alphacoronaviruses in humans: HCoV-229E and HCoV-NL63.

Although SADS-CoV has not been known to affect humans to date, the COVID-19 pandemic serves as a reminder that coronavirus strains found in animals can have the potential to infect people as well — known as the spillover effect.

“While many investigators focus on the emergent potential of the betacoronaviruses like SARS and MERS, actually the alphacoronaviruses may prove equally prominent — if not greater — concerns to human health, given their potential to rapidly jump between species,” said virologist Dr. Ralph Baric, the William R. Kenan Jr. distinguished professor of epidemiology at the Gillings School.

Research specialist and master of public health student Caitlin Edwards is first author on a study, released Oct. 12 in PNAS, with findings that suggest that humans may be susceptible to SADS-CoV spillover. Working with a team in the Baric Lab, Edwards tested several types of cells by infecting them with a synthetic form of SADS-CoV in order to understand just how high the risk of cross-species contamination could be, UNC said.

Evidence from the study indicates that a wide range of mammalian cells, including primary human lung and intestinal cells, are susceptible to infection. According to Edwards, SADS-CoV shows a higher rate of growth in enteric cells found in the human gut, unlike SARS-CoV-2, which primarily infects lung cells.

Cross-protective herd immunity often prevents humans from contracting many coronaviruses found in animals. However, results from the testing done by Edwards and her team suggest that humans have not yet developed such immunity to SADS-CoV, the announcement said.

“SADS-CoV is derived from bat coronaviruses called HKU2, which is a heterogenous group of viruses with a worldwide distribution,” Edwards explained. “It is impossible to predict if this virus, or a closely related HKU2 bat strain, could emerge and infect human populations. However, the broad host range of SADS-CoV, coupled with an ability to replicate in primary human lung and enteric cells, demonstrates potential risk for future emergence events in human and animal populations.”

In response to these findings, Edwards and her team tested the broad-spectrum antiviral remdesivir as a potential method of treatment for the infection, UNC said. Working with Gilead Sciences, remdesivir was developed by the Baric Lab to combat all known coronaviruses, including SADS-CoV.

Preliminary results from this study show that it has robust activity against SADS-CoV, although Edwards cautioned that more testing is necessary on additional cell types and in animals to confirm these findings, the announcement said.

“Promising data with remdesivir provides a potential treatment option in the case of a human spillover event,” she said. “We recommend that both swine workers and the swine population be continually monitored for indications of SADS-CoV infections to prevent outbreaks and massive economic losses.”

SADS-CoV could also pose a threat to the U.S. economy, which was third in global pork production in 2019. In 2012, the U.S. pork industry was devastated by a different swine coronavirus — porcine epidemic diarrhea virus — that emerged from China.

“Not surprisingly, we are currently looking for partners to investigate the potential of SADS-CoV vaccine candidates to protect swine,” Baric said. “While surveillance and early separation of infected piglets from sows provide an opportunity to mitigate larger outbreaks and the potential for spillover into humans, vaccines may be key for limiting global spread and human emergence events in the future.”

Other members of the UNC department of epidemiology involved in the study include Boyd Yount, assistant professor Rachel Graham, Sarah Leist, Yixuan Hou, associate professor Amy Sims, Jesica Swanstrom, Trevor Scobey, Michelle Cooley and Caroline Currie.

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