Coronaviruses aren’t new – just ask cavemen

It looks like our cave dwelling ancestor had to put up with coronaviruses too. So how did they do it?

Image courtesy: The Conversation

Key Points

  • Scientists have found evidence of an ancient coronavirus outbreak in the genome of modern humans from East Asia
  • A virus that interacts with human cells and tissues in a similar way to the virus that causes COVID-19 drove the outbreak
  • The findings could help researchers find new ways to fight COVID-19

A team of Australian and US scientists has discovered that a coronavirus epidemic broke out in East Asia around 25,000 years ago.

According to their study, reported in Current Biology, evidence of this can be seen in the genomes of modern-day people from the region.

"It wreaked havoc in the population and left significant genetic scars," said study co-author Kirill Alexandrov, a synthetic biologist at the Queensland University of Technology.

The history written in our genes

Like the rings of a tree, our genetic code can tell a story about events in our ancient past.

Random mutations to our genes mean some people are naturally more susceptible than others to being infected by viruses or developing serious symptoms of disease.

For instance, a recent study found that people who carry a cluster of genes inherited from Neanderthals some 50,000 years ago have a higher risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms.

But other mutations do the opposite, and can give us a survival edge when disease outbreaks occur.

"Adaptation seems to have started about 25,000 years ago," the study noted.

Researchers can't tell if this was a periodic thing that occurred every winter like the flu, or slightly different viruses that jumped from animals to humans.

The researchers also found evidence that a virus that invades cells in a similar way to SARS-CoV-2 was involved.

What's clear from the research is humans were exposed to coronaviruses for a period of roughly 20,000 years at one point in our history.

Unravelling the evolutionary story of past coronavirus outbreaks can offer clues on how to respond to future pandemics.

Tracking genetic adaptations can help researchers pinpoint which genes are the key players in our body's response to infections, which can inform drug and vaccine development.

Researchers says having this information before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic could have made advances in our response, such as having better and more diagnostics in place, more frontline drugs, and maybe some initial tests for vaccines.

Source: ABC News