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How Dangerous Are The New COVID-19 Variants?


Scientists reported the discovery of an entirely new coronavirus in Malaysia this week, one that likely came from dogs. It doesn't cause COVID-19. But it could be just the eighth coronavirus ever known to make people sick. NPR global health correspondent Michaeleen Doucleff has some more details. Michaeleen, thanks so much for being with us.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: So I gather this coronavirus was detected last year. But the patients were actually sick back in 2017 and 2018. Is the virus still around? Could it still cause an outbreak?

DOUCLEFF: Right now, nobody knows for sure if the virus is still around. So far, researchers have looked for it in only about 300 patients. All were hospitalized with pneumonia. And they found signs of a new coronavirus in eight of those patients, so nearly 3%, which is a high percentage for a completely unknown virus. And that suggests that the virus is still there. Now, there's no need to panic here at all because the researchers don't know if the virus causes pneumonia. And they don't know if it can spread from person to person. And that's really key, right? Because for a virus to cause a big outbreak, it has to be contagious.

SIMON: And it was discovered on Borneo, the island of Borneo, in a state called Sarawak. What's significant about that location?

DOUCLEFF: Yeah. So Sarawak has these lush tropical rainforest which contain tremendous numbers of animal species, exotic animals. At the same time, many people live in these forests and have contact with the animals. So these are the types of places where so-called spillovers often occur. That is where animal viruses jump into people and new human pathogens emerge. For this new coronavirus, researchers think the patients, who were mostly children, caught it from dogs, which was a surprise because no one thought coronaviruses could jump from dogs to humans. Actually, you know, Scott, coronaviruses are likely found in every animal species on Earth - dogs, cats, pigs, birds - and there are likely thousands of different coronavirus species.

SIMON: Well, we certainly love the dog we have in our family, no matter what she has. Not all these coronaviruses can infect people, though, right?

DOUCLEFF: No, no. The vast majority of them can't. But scientists are starting to realize that quite a few probably can. Dr. Gregory Gray helped to find this new coronavirus. He's at Duke University. And he and his colleagues developed a tool that can detect nearly all coronaviruses in patients' respiratory tracts, even new ones. He says if we really start looking for these new viruses, especially in sick people, we're going to find them in many, many places.

GREGORY GRAY: We probably have novel viruses even here in North America among people that work a lot with animals, you know, domestic animals. We're just missing them because we don't have the tools to pick them up.

DOUCLEFF: And that's what's so important about this study. It shows how scientists have been looking for these new viruses in the wrong place. Usually, they look for them in wild animals like bats and rodents. Gray says they should be looking for them in sick people so they can find the new viruses that are already causing disease but before they can spread from person to person, before they can cause big outbreaks.

SIMON: Michaeleen, is it possible the discovery of this new coronavirus may actually be good news in that scientists found it early?

DOUCLEFF: Absolutely. Now researchers have time to develop tools to stop this virus if they need to. You know, think about it. If scientists had discovered SARS-CoV-2 before it was contagious, the world would have had plenty of time to develop tests to detect it and even a vaccine to prevent it. And, perhaps, then SARS-CoV-2 wouldn't have had the chance to evolve into such a contagious and deadly pathogen.

SIMON: NPR global health correspondent Michaeleen Doucleff, thanks so much.

DOUCLEFF: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michaeleen Doucleff, PhD, is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. For nearly a decade, she has been reporting for the radio and the web for NPR's global health outlet, Goats and Soda. Doucleff focuses on disease outbreaks, cross-cultural parenting, and women and children's health.
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