Explained: What is Khosta-2, new COVID-like virus found in Russian bats?

Khosta-2 is able to infect human cells in a near-identical manner as SARS-CoV-2 and is resistant to COVID vaccines. The virus was first identified in bat samples collected between March and October 2020 near Sochi National Park in Russia

FP Explainers September 27, 2022 12:34:23 IST
Explained: What is Khosta-2, new COVID-like virus found in Russian bats?

The virus was first identified in bat samples collected between March and October 2020 near Sochi National Park in Russia. AFP

Just as the world is recovering from the onslaught of the COVID pandemic, scientists have flagged concerns over the discovery of a new COVID-like virus — Khosta-2. It is not detected in China but in Russia and is found in bats.

According to a study conducted by Washington State University and its findings published by a journal called PLOS Pathogens, Khosta-2 has the potential to infect humans and is resistant to the existing COVID vaccines.

Here’s what we know about the virus so far.

What is Khosta-2?

The virus was first identified in bat samples collected between March and October 2020 near Sochi National Park in Russia.

A sarbecovirus – a respiratory virus that can be detected by PCR on oral or nasal swabs – Khosta-2 has been found to interact with the same entry receptor as SARS-Cov-2. Through this study, scientists have tried to find how well the spike protein from the virus in question can infect human cells under different conditions.

The study found that the spike from Khosta-2 can indeed affect cells using the same entry mechanism as SARS-Cov-2. The virus also showed resistance to COVID vaccines.

According to PLOS Pathogens, two clade 3 sarbecoviruses were identified in Rhinolophus bats in Russia – Khosta-1 was found in Rhinolophus ferrumeguinum while Khosta-2 was found in Rhinolophus hipposideros.

The study says, “While these two viruses are in a viral lineage distinct from SARS-CoV-1 and -2, the RBD (receptor binding domain) from one virus, Khosta 2, was capable of using human ACE2 to facilitate cell entry.”

The RBD is where the sarbecovirus mixes up with receptor molecules on human cells.

Michael Letko, the corresponding author of the study, said, “Genetically, these weird Russian viruses looked like some of the others that had been discovered elsewhere around the world, but because they did not look like SARS-CoV-2, no one thought they were really anything to get too excited about.”

How does Khosta-2 spread?

Tests conducted as a part of the research showed that Khosta-2 was able to infect human cells in a near-identical manner as SARS-CoV-2.

The virus uses a spike-like protein to hook onto an entry enzyme found on the exterior of human cells called Angiotensin-converting enzyme-2 (ACE-2). According to a report by Daily Mail, the process can be described as a key being inserted into a lock.

While Khosta-2 has the ability to latch onto human cells, experts say that it doesn’t do it as efficiently as SARS-Cov-2.

Letko told Newsweek, that it is still difficult to determine whether Khosta-2 has the potential to spark an epidemic or even a pandemic.

How is it similar to COVID?

The study reveals that both Khosta-2 and SARS-Cov-2 belong to the same sub-category of coronaviruses. Similar to COVID, Khosta-2 uses the spike protein to enter and infect human cells.

According to a report by Time, even though Khosta-2 does not seem to have genes that could cause serious illnesses in humans, Letko suggests that once the virus starts circulating more widely and starts to mix with genes from SARS-Cov-2, it could pose a major threat to health.

“One of the things we’re worried about is that when related coronaviruses get into the same animal, and into the same cells, then they can recombine and out comes a new virus. The worry is that SARS-CoV-2 could spill back over to animals infected with something like Khosta-2 and recombine and then infect human cells. They could be resistant to vaccine immunity and also have some more virulent factors. What the chances of that are, who knows? But it could in theory happen during a recombination event,” said Letko.

Is Khosta-2 resistant to COVID vaccines?

The study says no.

Scientists conducted experiments to determine whether or not current COVID vaccines are effective to destroy Khosta-2. The virus appeared to be resistant to two doses of both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.

They also tested serum from people who were infected with the Omicron variant. But the antibodies for that too proved to be ineffective.

Lekto said, “Right now, there are groups trying to come up with a vaccine that doesn’t just protect against the next variant of SARS-2 (SARS-CoV-2) but actually protects us against the sarbecoviruses in general.”

Although the current vaccines don’t work, the group of scientists believe that is “still possible” that natural COVID immunity can potentially beat off the virus.

With inputs from agencies

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