Keeping up with viruses: Discoveries in 2022 to keep an eye on

Scientists have documented several new virus species, some of which can potentially threaten human health

By Rohini Krishnamurthy
Published: Tuesday 27 December 2022
A new study published in Science journal reported some 5,500 new viruses. Photo: iStock
A new study published in Science journal reported some 5,500 new viruses. Photo: iStock A new study published in Science journal reported some 5,500 new viruses. Photo: iStock

As COVID-19 brought on by the SARS-CoV-2 virus continues to wreak havoc worldwide, scientists have documented new virus species, showing us just how diverse the microscopic world is. Down To Earth takes a look at a few of these discoveries, including those that could potentially threaten human health. 

Also included are viral diseases of animals and how discoveries in the oceans are changing our understanding of ribonucleic acid or RNA viruses.

New, potentially dangerous relative of SARS-CoV-2

Khosta-2, a coronavirus found in Russian bats, shows potentially dangerous features, a 2022 study published in the journal PLOS Pathogens found.

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It is closely related to SARS-CoV-2. Khosta-2 was discovered in 2020 and is also capable of infecting human cells, the researchers noted in the paper. 

The virus can use its spike protein to latch on to a receptor protein called angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2), found throughout human cells and make its entry.

These viruses “circulating in wildlife outside of Asia — even in places like western Russia where the Khosta-2 virus was found — also pose a threat to global health and ongoing vaccine campaigns against SARS-CoV-2,” Michael Letko, Washington State University virologist and corresponding author of the study, said in a statement.

Current COVID-19 vaccines are unlikely to work on them because they target coronaviruses belonging to clade-1 and, in one case, clade 2. A branch of an evolutionary that includes a single common ancestor and all of its descendants is called a clade.

The researchers wrote that they do not include members from clade 3, such as Khosta-2. While clade-1 and clade-2 are identified in Asian bats, clade-3 is found more widely in their African and European counterparts, the study noted.

Virus in Swiss ticks 

A virus transmitted by ticks, first detected in China in 2017, was spotted in Switzerland, a 2022 report highlighted.

The Alongshan virus is a flavivirus, a genus of RNA viruses known to be transmitted by mosquitoes and ticks. Dengue, West Nile Virus and Zika virus belong to this genus, which infects up to 400 million people annually.

The virus in question causes tick-borne encephalitis. The symptoms include fever and headaches.

Researchers identified the virus in tick samples collected in several regions of Switzerland in 2021 and 2022. They warn that it could pose a public health concern in Switzerland. In 2019, the Alongshan virus was also found in south-eastern Finland.

Spillover threats from new virus

Another virus circulating in bats made news in 2022. Researchers identified the Kiwira virus in Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo in a study published this year in the journal Viruses

The new virus is a type of Hantavirus, which is transmitted by rodents and bats. It is known to cause respiratory and kidney diseases in humans.

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Kiwira virus was discovered in Angolan free-tailed bats, a species not known to harbour hantaviruses until now. The researchers warn that the virus could potentially jump from bats to humans.

Less potent virus in China

In August, Chinese researchers announced a new henipavirus: Langya henipavirus (LayV). Henipaviruses is a genus whose members include the closely-related Hendra virus and Nipah virus. 

The group has emerged as a threat in the Asia-Pacific region, according to journal The BMJ. The new virus gets its name from a town called Langya in Shandong, an eastern Chinese province.

LayV does not pose significant threats as they are neither highly infectious nor fatal.

“There is no particular need to worry about this, but ongoing surveillance is critical,” Edward Holmes, an evolutionary virologist at the University of Sydney in Australia, told journal Nature.

It can cause respiratory symptoms such as fever, cough and fatigue. Researchers detected antibodies against this virus in goats, dogs, and shrews — the possible animal hosts.

Treasure trove in the oceans

The ocean world harbours diverse and abundant microbial life. Each millilitre of surface seawater contains 10 million viruses.

A new study published in Science journal reported some 5,500 new viruses. These viruses have RNA as a genetic material. While deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) viruses are known to be abundant and diverse, RNA viruses that don’t cause diseases are relatively less-studied, the researchers wrote in their study.

The newly discovered viruses represent all five known RNA virus phyla, a group of animals sharing one or more major characteristics. Further, they propose at least five new phyla to describe the rest.

“There’s so much new diversity here and an entire phylum, the Taraviricota, were found all over the oceans, which suggests they’re ecologically important,” lead author Matthew Sullivan, professor of microbiology at The Ohio State University, said in a statement.

Owls infected by a new virus

Researchers discovered a new virus in an owl called Otus scops, a small raptor widely distributed worldwide, providing an understanding of the infectious disease among raptors and owls. 

Otus scops adenovirus (OsAdV) was collected from an island off the northeast coast of China. The researchers speculated that this virus might commonly exist in wild owl populations and be transmitted vertically among owls.

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New virus could control agricultural pests

In China, two new insect-specific viruses were reported in green leafhoppers, a significant agricultural pest, in 2022. Cicadella viridis iflavirus 1 and Cicadella viridis nido-like virus 1 could potentially be used to control the pest population. The findings are published in a 2022 paper published in journal Insects.

Strawberries have a new intruder

Researchers from the Czech Republic published a paper introducing the world to a new RNA virus that infects strawberry plants. It was found in 28.3 per cent of strawberry samples. More than one-third of the infected plants also had other viruses, the findings noted.

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