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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

This is the alternate route coronavirus can use to infect (and that could evade vaccines)

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Since the beginning of the pandemic, scientists began looking for a way to stop the virus. One of the most important achievements, especially for the creation of vaccines, was when they identified the key receptor in the contagion process. 

Now, a study suggests that the coronavirus is capable of using an alternate route to infect.

The receptor is called ACE2 and all the vaccines and treatments that currently exist against COVID-19 are designed to prevent the coronavirus from coming into contact with this receptor, since it is the direct route to enter the cells of the body and infect them.

However, a serendipitous discovery by a group of researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis showed a terrifying scenario: one of the mutations allows the coronavirus to enter human cells through another route, one that does not use ACE2, although the other receiver it uses is still unknown.

The good news is that this mutation took place in laboratory conditions and a similar one has not yet been detected in the human population, but if it happens, vaccines and treatments will lose efficacy.

“This mutation occurred at one of the spots that changes a lot as the virus circulates in the human population.Most of the time, alternative receptors and attachment factors simply enhance ACE2-dependent entry. But in this case, we have discovered an alternative way to infect a key cell type — a human lung cell — and that the virus acquired this ability via a mutation that we know arises in the population. This is something we definitely need to know more about,” said co-lead author Sebla Kutluay, PhD, professor of molecular microbiology, in a statement.

The study was conducted in lungs, some with cancer, or other cells similar to those that SARS-CoV-2 naturally infects, rather than in primate kidney cells, where research is routinely conducted.

The scientists found that the mutation that allows circumventing the classical contagion pathway occurs at position 484, where the alpha and beta mutation also occurs, which have caused thousands of deaths in India.

“Given our data and those of others, it is possible that the virus is under selective pressure to get into cells without using ACE2. In so many ways, it is scary to think of the world’s population fighting a virus that is diversifying the mechanisms by which it can infect cells,” said study co-author Ben Major.

However, scientists do not know if the coronavirus in real-world conditions can take this alternative route. Before researchers can begin to address that question, they must find the alternate receptor that the virus is using to enter cells.

“It is possible that the virus uses ACE2 until it runs out of cells with ACE2, and then it switches over to using this alternative pathway. This might have relevance in the body, but without knowing the receptor, we cannot say what the relevance is going to be,” said Kutluay.

Image Credit: Getty

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