Most online newspapers spread the news with this headline and then don’t mention the most important thing: what is it for?
The discovery comes from a young student in Rome
Let’s briefly summarize the news. A group of Medical Statistics and Molecular Epidemiology of the University Campus Biomedical of Rome directed by Massimo Ciccozzi has analyzed the genetic sequence of Sars-CoV-2 available in databases. The research will be published shortly in the Journal of Clinical Virology, an important specialized journal. All newspapers also emphasize that the first author of the article is a young student, Domenico Benvenuto.
This is almost always the case (i.e. the work in a laboratory or data analysis is certainly not performed by the Professor but by a recent graduate or Ph.D student). Perhaps this is just news for those who don’t yet know about it, but for the thousands of young researchers, it’s completely normal.
Why is it an important discovery?
The really important news is that the study has concluded that between the 20th and 25th of November 2020, the virus made the “leap of species” and first infected humans.
As an evolutionary biologist, I’m excited by this news, but most people surely wonder about what it means and what the consequences are for us. And no reporter explains (or can explain) this.
So let’s try to clarify and describe something more than just information about the result of the research.
1- What does it mean that the coronavirus made the “leap of species”?
It means that the coronavirus has the ability to mutate its surface proteins (called “spikes”) which are also the only ones that can allow it to penetrate human cells, in order to infect and replicate them.
This has allowed it to probably pass from bats to humans, but we’re still not sure if the last animal vector was the bat.
2- What are the consequences for humans?
In addition to the obvious ones that we’re unfortunately experiencing everyday (i.e. that Sars-CoV-2 easily infects humans), research suggests to us with some accuracy when the species jump occurred. In other words, it allows us to understand when the infection started, and thus allows us to better measure the growth curve of the epidemic.
Having the confirmation that it changes (even though we already knew this), must prepare us for the fact that it may reoccur in the near future with some small changes compared to how we know it today. On the other hand, we already know today that there are several strains of Sars-CoV-2 in circulation.
If we can figure out how many mutations there were after the first infection, and which structures of the virus were affected, we might also gain clearer ideas on how to produce a more effective vaccine. This is essential, in an effort to protect ourselves more effectively, and above all, to protect the weaker areas of our population.
With no alarmism, therefore, the scientific community specialized in infectious diseases is studying Sars-CoV-2 and progress is being made in the behavior of a virus that is already known but that has rarely (remember SARS in 2002-2003) infected humans.
This post is also available in: Italiano