Researchers have identified microscopic features that could make the pathogen more infectious than the SARS virus – and serve as drug targets. Researchers have identified microscopic features that could make the pathogen more infectious than the SARS virus – and serve as drug targets.
The new virus spreads much more readily than the one that caused severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS (also a coronavirus), and has infected more than ten times the number of people who contracted SARS.
To infect a cell, coronaviruses use a ‘spike’ protein that binds to the cell membrane, a process that’s activated by specific cell enzymes. Genomic analyses of the new coronavirus have revealed that its spike protein differs from those of close relatives, and suggest that the protein has a site on it which is activated by a host-cell enzyme called furin.
This is significant because furin is found in lots of human tissues, including the lungs, liver and small intestines, which means that the virus has the potential to attack multiple organs, says Li Hua, a structural biologist at Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, China, where the outbreak began. The finding could explain some of the symptoms observed in people with the coronavirus, such as liver failure, says Li, who co-authored a genetic analysis of the virus that was posted on the ChinaXiv preprint server on 23 February2. SARS and other coronaviruses in the same genus as the new virus don’t have furin activation sites, he says.