Cornell University researchers studying the structure of the virus that causesCOVID-19 have found a unique feature that could explain why it is sotransmissible between people.

Researchers also note that, aside from primates, cats, ferrets and mink arethe animal species apparently most susceptible to the human virus.

Gary Whittaker, professor of virology, is the senior author on the study,which identifies a structural loop in the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, the areaof the virus that facilitates entry into a cell, and a sequence of four aminoacids in this loop that is different from other known human coronaviruses inthis viral lineage.

An analysis of the lineage of SARS-CoV-2 showed it shared properties of theclosely related SARS-CoV-1, which first appeared in humans in 2003 and islethal but not highly contagious, and HCoV-HKU1, a highly transmissible butrelatively benign human coronavirus. SARS-CoV-2 is both highly transmissibleand lethal.

“It’s got this strange combination of both properties,” Whittaker said. “Theprediction is that the loop is very important to transmissibility orstability, or both.”

Whittaker said the researchers are focused on further study of this structuralloop and the sequence of four amino acids.

Cats, ferrets and minks are also susceptible. In order to infect a cell,features of the spike protein must bind with a receptor on the host cell’ssurface, and cats have a receptor binding site that closely matches that ofhumans. To date, infections in cats appear to be mild and infrequent, andthere is not evidence that cats can, in turn, infect humans.

Whittaker added that investigations into feline coronaviruses could providefurther clues into SARS-CoV-2 and coronaviruses in general.

The study, Phylogenetic Analysis and Structural Modeling of SARS-CoV-2 SpikeProtein Reveals an Evolutionary Distinct and Proteolytically SensitiveActivation Loop, was published in the Journal of Molecular Biology.

Source: Science Daily

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