Skip to Content
Biotechnology

Virus in Chinese outbreak is closest to one from bats, not snakes

January 23, 2020
2019 Coronavirus
2019 CoronavirusZheng-Li Shi, bioRxiv

Researchers say the virus spreading through China is in the same family as SARS and closest to one found in bats.

Discovery: Today, researchers led by Zheng-Li Shi at the Wuhan Institute for Virology posted a paper describing the virus in detail for the first time, including a picture of the virus infecting cells.

The new virus, dubbed nCoV-2019, is in the same family as SARS—a coronavirus that caused global mayhem starting in 2003—and even uses the same receptor to hack into a person’s lung cells, Li’s team found. 

Outbreak: The current epidemic, which started in mid-December, has already affected more than 500 people, killing several. It may have originated in an animal market in Wuhan, a city of 11 million that Chinese authorities have put under quarantine.

Viruses can make the jump from animals to humans, especially when wild animals are kept and sold in food markets, as is alleged to be the case in Wuhan.

Gene detectives: It didn’t take long for researchers to grab the genetic sequence of the virus and blast it against big gene databases to see what other germs it is most similar to. Already the virus has been collected and decoded from at least 24 victims in Wuhan, Shenzhen, and other cities.

Snake snafu: Another Chinese team this week claimed the virus could have come from snakes, but that widely reported finding already looks like a mistake. The new analysis shows its genetic makeup is 96% identical to that of a coronavirus found in bats. “I would be very surprised if this were a snake virus,” says Timothy Sheahan, a virologist at the University of North Carolina. Bats were also the ultimate source of SARS, scientists believe. 

 

Deep Dive

Biotechnology

How scientists want to make you young again

Research labs are pursuing technology to “reprogram” aging bodies back to youth.

Inside the billion-dollar meeting for the mega-rich who want to live forever

Hope, hype, and self-experimentation collided at an exclusive conference for ultra-rich investors who want to extend their lives past 100. I went along for the ride.

Human brain cells transplanted into baby rats’ brains grow and form connections

When lab-grown clumps of human neurons are transplanted into newborn rats, they grow with the animals. The research raises some tricky ethical questions.

The debate over whether aging is a disease rages on

In its latest catalogue of health conditions, the World Health Organization almost equated old age with disease. Then it backed off.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.