Scientists have discovered a new canine coronavirus in a child who was hospitalized with pneumonia in Malaysia in 2018. If the virus is confirmed to be a human pathogen, it would be the eighth coronavirus, and the first canine coronavirus, known to cause disease in humans.
It is not yet clear whether this specific virus poses a serious threat to humans, the researchers stress. The study does not prove that the pneumonia was caused by the virus, which may not be capable of spreading between people. But the finding, which was published on Thursday in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, highlights the need to more proactively search for viruses that could jump from animals into humans, the scientists said.
“I think the key message here is that these things are probably happening all over the world, where people come in contact with animals, especially intense contact, and we’re not picking them up,” said Dr. Gregory Gray, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Duke University who is one of the study’s authors. “We should be looking for these things. If we can catch them early and find out that these viruses are successful in the human host, then we can mitigate them before they become a pandemic virus.”
Seven coronaviruses are currently known to infect humans. In addition to SARS-CoV-2, which is the virus that causes COVID-19, there are coronaviruses that cause SARS, MERS and the common cold. Many of these viruses are believed to have originated in bats, but can jump from bats to humans, either directly or after a stopover in another animal host.
Scientists have known for decades that coronaviruses can cause disease in dogs, but until now there has been no evidence that canine coronaviruses can infect people.
It is too soon to say whether this virus poses a risk to humans. Researchers have not yet proved that this virus is the cause of the pneumonia that sent patients to the hospital.
“We have to be careful, because things show up all the time that don’t become outbreaks,” said John Lednicky, a virologist at the University of Florida who was not an author of the study.
Nevertheless, the study is “extremely important,” he said. “We should take this seriously and look for it, because if we start seeing more cases, that’s when the alarm bells should go off.”