Another monkey virus could spill over to humans

According to recent CU Boulder study published online Sept. 30 in the journal Cell, an unknown family of viruses that is currently prevalent in wild African primates and known to cause lethal Ebola-like symptoms in certain monkeys is “poised for spillover” to people.

Although these arteriviruses are now thought to pose a serious threat to macaque monkeys, no human infections have been documented as of yet. Furthermore, it is unknown how the virus might affect individuals if it switched species.


The scientists however urge caution, drawing comparisons to HIV (the forerunner of which emerged in African monkeys), saying that the global health community might potentially prevent another epidemic by keeping an eye out for arteriviruses now in both animals and people.

“This animal virus has discovered a way to enter human cells, reproduce, and avoid some of the critical immune systems we would anticipate to defend us from an animal virus. That’s fairly uncommon, according to senior author Sara Sawyer, a professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “We ought to be focusing on it.”


Animals all across the world are infected with thousands of different viruses, the majority of which show no symptoms. More and more have jumped to humans in recent decades, causing havoc on immature immune systems that have no prior experience fighting them off.


That includes the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) in 2003, the Middle Eastern respiratory sickness (MERS) in 2012, and the COVID-19 virus, SARS-CoV-2, in 2020.

For 15 years, Sawyer’s group at the BioFrontiers Institute has investigated whether animal viruses may be likely to infect people by using cutting-edge laboratory techniques and tissue samples from wildlife from all over the world.


Looking for viruses that can jump to humans

She and the first author of the most recent study, Cody Warren, who was at the time a postdoctoral fellow at the BioFrontiers Institute, focused on arteriviruses, which are widespread in pigs and horses but less known in nonhuman primates. They focused on the simian hemorrhagic fever virus (SHFV), which has been responsible for devastating outbreaks in captive macaque colonies all over the world since the 1960s and causes a fatal illness similar to that produced by the Ebola virus.

According to the study, a molecule or receptor by the name of CD163 is crucial to the biology of simian arteriviruses and allows the virus to enter target cells and infect them. To their astonishment, the researchers found through a series of lab studies that the virus was also highly skilled at latching on to the human form of CD163, entering human cells, and quickly replicating itself.

Simian arteriviruses appear to attack immune cells similarly to human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and its predecessor simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), compromising vital defense mechanisms and establishing a long-lasting presence in the body.

The similarities between this virus and the simian viruses that caused the HIV epidemic are deep, according to Warren, who is currently an assistant professor in The Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

The authors emphasize that no imminent epidemic exists, thus the general public does not need to be concerned.

However, they do recommend that the field of global health focus more research on simian arteriviruses, create blood tests for them, and think about surveillance of human populations that have intimate contact with animal carriers.

Many different African monkey species already have significant viral loads of different arteriviruses, frequently without any symptoms, and certain species are known to bite and scratch humans.

“Just because we haven’t identified a human arterivirus infection yet doesn’t mean no one has been exposed to it,’ researchers argue. “We haven’t looked,” Warren remarked.

According to Warren and Sawyer, no one had ever heard of HIV in the 1970s either.

It is now known by researchers that HIV most likely developed from SIVs that infected nonhuman primates in Africa and then spread to people sometime in the early 1900s, possibly when a person ate an infected chimpanzee or cut a finger while butchering one.

There was no serology test available and no treatments were being developed when it started killing young men in the 1980s in the United States.

More than 40 million individuals worldwide had died from HIV/AIDS by the year 2022. Approximately 2,000 people worldwide still perish from the illness every day.

Could we have fought the HIV pandemic more effectively and earlier if we had known more about the biology of SIVs and the dangers they posed? I think we could have,” Warren said.

However, certain other animal viruses have been demonstrated in laboratory experiments to be able to jump through the hoops necessary to replicate themselves in human cells, yet have never made the leap to humans, according to Sawyer.

There is no doubt that other viruses will infect humans and spread disease, according to Sawyer.

The latest in a long line of human-to-animal spillover occurrences, some of which have resulted in global catastrophes, is COVID, according to Sawyer. In order to prevent human illnesses from happening, “our aim is that by increasing knowledge of the viruses that we should be on the lookout for, we can get ahead of this and be on it soon.”


By: Miss Cherry May Timbol – Independent Reporter

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