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The strain has been infecting pigs in China since 2016 and is called “swine acute diarrhoea syndrome coronavirus” or SADS-CoV. It is thought to have originally come from bats who transmitted the virus to pigs.
The virus strain is said to be most dangerous to piglets.
A large outbreak of the disease could inflict major economic damage to countries who rely on pork production and sales.
According to the database company Statista, China had the world’s largest pork production followed by the EU and the US.
Researchers in North Carolina have discovered that SADS-CoV can spread to humans.
They have found that the virus can infect and replicate itself within human airway, liver and intestinal cells.
Coronaviruses are a type of virus which can cause disease.
SADS-CoV and the strain behind the COVID-19 pandemic, SARS-CoV-2, are both part of the same family of viruses.
But SADS-CoV is in a different genus than the COVID-19 strain.
Professor Ralph Baric from the University of North Carolina said: “Many investigators focus on the emergent potential of the betacoronaviruses like SARS and MERS.”
The author of the study added: “Actually the alphacoronaviruses may prove equally prominent — if not greater — concerns to human health, given their potential to rapidly jump between species.”
Professor Baric and his colleagues researched the risk of “spillover” – whether the virus strain could jump from pigs to human populations.
The researchers discovered that swine coronavirus is capable of replicating faster in intestinal cells, rather than in lungs.
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The findings also indicated that humans have not gained herd immunity to protect themselves from contracting the swine coronavirus from animals.
Caitlin Edwards, public health expert and co-author on the research paper, said: “SADS-CoV is derived from bat coronaviruses called HKU2, which is a heterogenous group of viruses with a worldwide distribution.”
She added: “It is impossible to predict if this virus, or a closely related HKU2 bat strain, could emerge and infect human populations.
“However, the broad host range of SADS-CoV, coupled with an ability to replicate in primary human lung and enteric cells, demonstrates potential risk for future emergence events in human and animal populations.”
The research group also tested the potential use of remdesivir to fight against the swine coronavirus.
The antiviral medication has been touted as a treatment to help patients recover from COVID-19 infections.
The drug was recently given to the US President Donald Trump after he tested positive for the virus.
The researchers suggest that remdesivir could be a potential treatment against SADS-CoV.
Ms Edwards said: “Promising data with remdesivir provides a potential treatment option in the case of a human spillover event.
“We recommend that both swine workers and the swine population be continually monitored for indications of SADS-CoV infections to prevent outbreaks and massive economic losses.”
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