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A new coronavirus might have come from a dog

The most recently discovered coronavirus arose in a pupper, according to a new study. The New York Times reported that researchers have detected a novel canine coronavirus in a child who went to the hospital with pneumonia in Malaysia in 2018, although it’s still unclear whether the virus caused the disease, or whether people can transmit it to each other. If anything, the findings underscore the need to keep a closer eye on viruses that could make the leap from humans to animals — a phenomenon that might be more common than we think — so we can intervene before they lead to another pandemic.

To date, scientists know of seven coronaviruses that can infect humans, the Times explained: SARS-CoV-2 — the virus responsible for COVID-19 — as well as the viruses that cause MERS, SARS, and the common cold. Experts think that although many of them arose in bats, they can jump from bats to humans, directly or by way of an intermediate animal host. Dogs and cats can catch SARS-CoV-2, but the Times noted that there’s no evidence they can spread it to humans.

Coronaviruses have long been known to make dogs sick, too, but the virus discovered in the pneumonia patient, reported in Clinical Infectious Diseases on Thursday, marks the first time scientists have seen evidence of a canine coronavirus infecting a person. It's worth reiterating that they don’t know whether the virus actually caused the child’s pneumonia.

A dog might’ve spread the new canine coronavirus to the child, but we can’t say for sure, Gregory Gray, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Duke University and one of the study authors, told the Times. He said that they might’ve also caught it from a cat or other intermediate host.

The study started with doctoral student Leshan Xiu creating a tool that allowed the researchers to screen a broad spectrum of coronaviruses, including those that scientists weren’t aware of yet, the Times explained. According to the newspaper, they used this tool to analyze nasopharyngeal swabs from 301 patients hospitalized with pneumonia in Sarawak, Malaysia from 2017 to 2018. Eight of the swabs, most from kids who lived in areas where people and animals often came in contact with each other, seemed to contain a canine coronavirus.

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Anastasia Vlasova, a veterinarian and virologist at Ohio State University, confirmed that two of these swabs indeed harbored a new canine coronavirus, per the Times, and one even seemed able to damage canine cells. From this sample, she pieced together the genome of the virus, which she found included a mutation in a gene that encodes a crucial structural protein.

According to the Times, scientists have noticed similar mutations in the viruses responsible for SARS and COVID-19. The mutation may help canine and other animal coronaviruses jump to human hosts, the newspaper said, but until future studies test this directly, we can’t draw this conclusion with certainty.

A number of questions still hang in the air, including whether this virus is in fact dangerous to humans. Vlasova told the newspaper that she doesn’t believe it'll trigger a pandemic (thank God), but noted that the spread of coronaviruses from animals to humans may be more common than we realize, and we need to pay more attention to them than we have been. In short, the findings warrant vigilance, but not alarm.

“If we can catch [interspecies transmission] early and find out that these viruses are successful in the human host, then we can mitigate them before they become a pandemic virus,” Gray told the Times. While the notion of another panny is the last thing we want to think about when the current one hasn’t even ended yet, health experts need to be proactive about tracking down interspecies spread if we don’t want to find ourselves homebound and isolated from our loved ones again.