Four coronaviruses cause around a quarter of all common colds, but each was probably deadly when it first made the leap to humans. We can learn a lot from what happened next



Health



29 April 2020

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IN 1889, a disease outbreak in central Asia went global, igniting a pandemic that burned into the following year. It caused fever and fatigue, and killed an estimated 1 million people. The disease is generally blamed on influenza, and was dubbed “Russian flu“. But with no tissue samples to check for the flu virus, there is no conclusive proof.

Another possibility is that this “flu” was actually a coronavirus pandemic. The finger has been pointed at a virus first isolated in the 1960s, though today it causes nothing more serious than a common cold. In fact, there are four coronaviruses responsible for an estimated 20 to 30 per cent of colds. Only recently have virologists begun to dig into these seemingly humdrum pathogens and what they have found suggests the viruses have a far more deadly past. Researchers now believe that all four of these viruses began to infect humans in the past few centuries and, when they did, they probably sparked pandemics.

The parallels with our current crisis are obvious. And it turns out that our growing knowledge about these other coronaviruses could be vital in meeting the challenge of covid-19. Insights into the origins, trajectories and features of common cold coronaviruses can provide crucial clues about what to expect in the coming months and years. Understanding these relatively benign viruses may also help us avoid another pandemic.

Coronaviruses are a big family of viruses that are mainly known for causing diseases in livestock. Until recently, few virologists paid them much attention. “Human coronaviruses were recognised in the 1960s,” says Frank Esper at the …



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