No, NeoCoV is not a COVID-19 variant; can't infect humans in its current form

As India reels under the third wave of COVID-19, several viral and misleading messages of a so-called new variant of COVID-19, NeoCov, is doing the rounds of social media causing panic among the public. What is NeoCov? Do we need to panic? How severe is it?

By Nimisha S Pradeep  Published on  31 Jan 2022 3:13 PM GMT
No, NeoCoV is not a COVID-19 variant; cant infect humans in its current form

"One mutation and game over," wrote a Twitter user. Another shared a post by WHO from January 2020 where it had said there will be no human-to-human transmission for COVID-19. They were wrong, said the Twitter user and added that the same could happen with NeoCoV.

As India reels under the third wave of COVID-19, several viral and misleading messages of a so-called new variant of COVID-19, NeoCov, is doing the rounds of social media causing panic among the public. What is NeoCov? Do we need to panic? How severe is it?

NeoCov is not a variant of COVID-19. Instead, it is a type of coronavirus found in animals. Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that can cause diseases ranging from the common cold to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). COVID-19 is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. NeoCov is a coronavirus that was found in bats in 2013 in South Africa by a study aimed at tracing the ancestors of MERS-CoV. Neo in the name comes from Neoromicia, the species of bats in which it was identified.

Why is it in the news now?

In the study conducted in 2013, it was found that NeoCov was similar to MERS-CoV, which used DPP4 receptors to enter human cells. However, in a recent yet-to-be-peer-reviewed study posted in a preprint repository bioRxiv and conducted by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Wuhan University, it was discovered that NeoCoV is similar to MERS-CoV but it used bat's ACE2 receptors rather than DPP4 receptors. But ACE2 receptors in bats are different from the ACE2 receptors in human beings.

"In this study, we unexpectedly found that NeoCoV and its close relative PDF-2180-CoV can efficiently use some types of bat Angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) and, less favorably, human ACE2 for entry," the authors of the study noted. They said that in its current form, NeoCoV does not affect humans, but also added that potential adaptations like in the case of SARS-CoV-2 and its latest variant Omicron, can enable human entry.

ACE2 receptors

ACE2 receptors or Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme 2 receptors are enzymes in the cells and tissues of our body that generate protein. ACE2 is a vital element that regulates blood pressure, wound healing, and inflammation, etc. At the same time, they are viral receptors. Using the spike-like protein on its surface, SARS-CoV-2 binds itself to the ACE receptors in human cells. NeoCoV that uses ACE2 receptors of bats can enter the human body but only after mutation.

What does WHO say?

"The question of whether the NeoCov coronavirus poses a threat to humans requires further study," the WHO said speaking to Russia's TASS news agency. It further said that it was working closely with the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the UN Environment Program (UNEP) in order to monitor and respond to the threat of emerging zoonotic viruses.

Is there a need to panic?

While people fear that NeoCoV can enter humans after a single mutation, Vijayanand, an independent COVID-19 data analyst, says, "The mutation can happen, but the probability is very less." He also adds that since it is transmitted within the bats as of now and hasn't yet infected humans, there is no need to panic. "Spillover events are rare from animals," wrote Vinod Scaria, a scientist at CSIR Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB), in his Twitter thread on NeoCoV.

Rakesh Mishra, Director of Tata Institute for Genetics and Society (TIGS), Bangalore, also said that there is no particular reason to worry about NeoCoV right now and that a lot more is still to be studied and understood about the virus.


Another claim that is going around is that NeoCoV is deadlier than SARS-CoV-2. These claims suggest that one in three people die if infected with NeoCoV. Rakesh calls it "close to absurd". He also says that it is too early to comment regarding things like severity. One way of calculating the severity rate is by dividing the number of deaths by the number of lab-confirmed cases of MERS-CoV. Dr. Rajeev Jayadevan, former IMA president, tweeted that the death estimate for MERS-CoV (1:3) might be an overestimate as the denominator only had lab-confirmed cases. Asymptomatic people like in the case of SARS-CoV-2 might not get tested at all and won't be included in the denominator. He also confirmed that the virus has neither infected nor killed any human being to date.

Emphasizing the need to understand the virus better, Vinod Scaria also tweeted, "Genome sequencing and surveillance of human and animal viruses is the key to understanding the spectrum of viruses, and possibly provide early warning to potential spillover events."

Humans and animals

Like SARS-CoV-2, NeoCoV is also a zoonotic disease. A zoonotic disease passes from an animal or insect to a human. "The biggest lesson that we learnt from COVID-19 is that every species has a right to live. If we encroach into their habitats, we will pay for it," says Rakesh. Human beings should not venture into wild habitats and change their environment, he adds.

Instead, he urges everyone to be cautious and take preventive measures. "Avoid contact with wild animals. For instance, do not consume fruits or products directly from the wild as they could be bitten by bats or other wild animals," he suggests.

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