RaTG13 is a 96.2% match with COVID-19 and new findings on airborne transmission

Last Sunday there was a breakthrough in identifying the sources of the COVID-19 virus. The Sunday Times refers to Zhengli Shi’s recent published paper (in Feb 2020) about a new discovery that a virus named RaTG13 was found in a bat sample that was a 96.2% match with COVID-19.

“Shi Zhengli, the head of the institute’s Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases, co-authored a paper in February which gave a full genetic description of the virus and said that the Wuhan Institute of Virology had a bat sample, named RaTG13, which was a 96.2 percent match with COVID-19.” (Hendry-Tennent, 2020)

This is a publicly available research paper with free access (Zhou et al., 2020) and we will go into some details of the study below, because it does not only reveal the source of the RaTG13 virus, but it also makes another very alarming discovery that media ignore.

It must be emphasized that the academic paper does not tell the origin of the COVID-19 virus, but just tell the source of the RaTG13 virus. Simialrly, the Sunday Times’ discovery is also about the source of the RaTG13 virus that is a bit different from that of the academic paper, yet it is still not about COVID-19.

First, Zhou et al. (2020) revealed that the source of RaTG13 is from Yunnan, and they found a high similarity between RaTG13 and 2019-nCoV as follows:

“We then found that a short region of RNA-dependent RNA polymerase (RdRp) from a bat coronavirus (BatCoV RaTG13) — which was previously detected in Rhinolophus affinis from Yunnan province — showed high sequence identity to 2019-nCoV. We carried out full-length sequencing on this RNA sample (GISAID accession number EPI_ISL_402131). Simplot analysis showed that 2019-nCoV was highly similar throughout the genome to RaTG13 (Fig. 1c), with an overall genome sequence identity of 96.2%.” (Zhou et al., 2020, emphasis added)

The Sunday Times further found that:

“Scientists in 2013 sent frozen samples to the Wuhan lab from a bat-infested former copper mine in southwest China after six men who had been clearing out bat feces there contracted a severe pneumonia, the newspaper said.

Three of them died and the most likely cause was a coronavirus transmitted from a bat, the Sunday Times reported, citing a medic whose supervisor worked in the emergency department that treated the men. The same mine in Yunnan province was subsequently studied by Shi Zhengli, an expert in SARS-like coronaviruses of bat origins at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.” (Rai, 2020)

In other words, there are now two different versions of the sources of the bat samples of RaTG13, but both sources of information confirm that the origin of the RaTG13 is from Yunnan in 2013, which may or may not be the origin of COVID-19, even though the similarity plot is up to 96.2%. They also confirm that the Wuhan Institute of Virology has obtained the RaTG13 virus from Yunnan since 2013 to conduct research on CoV virus.

Although many scientists have emphasized that the 3.8% difference in the genome sequence can take decades to mutate, RaTG13 possesses a much higher similarity with COVID-19 than many other CoV viruses as shown in the similarity plot (Figure 1):

Figure 1 Similarity plot based on the full-length genome sequence of 2019-nCoV WIV04. Full-length genome sequences of SARS-CoV BJ01, bat SARSr-CoV WIV1, bat coronavirus RaTG13 and ZC45 were used as reference sequences. Source: Zhou et al. (2020)

Interestingly, all newspapers focus only on this storyline, without paying attention to another equally important finding in the same paper. That is about the transmission channel that the paper found:

“On the basis of these findings, we propose that the disease could be transmitted by airborne transmission” Zhou et al. (2020)

In other words, there have been warnings that COVID-19 can be airborne transmitted as early as in Feb 2020, but WHO has to wait until July 7 to inform the world:

“Speaking at a media briefing in Geneva on Tuesday, Benedetta Allegranzi, the WHO’s technical lead for infection prevention and control, said: ‘…The possibility of airborne transmission in public settings — especially in very specific conditions, crowded, closed, poorly ventilated settings that have been described, cannot be ruled out.’” (Guardian, 2020)

It may explain why under some specific conditions even social distancing does not prevent the spread of the virus. There is more and more evidence of these specific conditions that the disease can be airborne transmitted. It is also reported that “in an open letter published on Monday (July 6), 239 scientists in 32 countries outlined evidence that they say shows floating virus particles can infect people who breathe them in.” (Swift, 2020)

References

Hendry-Tennent, Ireland (2020) Report claims Chinese scientists found virus 96 percent similar to COVID-19 in 2013 but kept it secret, 06/07/2020, Newshub. https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/world/2020/07/report-claims-chinese-scientists-found-virus-96-percent-similar-to-covid-19-in-2013-but-kept-it-secret.html

Guardian (2020) Global report: WHO says ‘evidence emerging’ of airborne coronavirus spread, July 8. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jul/08/who-says-evidence-emerging-of-airborne-coronavirus-spread?CMP=fb_gu&utm_medium=Social&utm_source=Facebook&fbclid=IwAR1dst4rVTqA9r6iio81sDKwYsrUaxzxvThmXnm7JN9pQ-9RJTeSuO9WR9A#Echobox=1594188362

Rai, Arpan (2020) Covid-like virus was sent to Wuhan in 2013: Report, hindustantimes July 5. https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/covid-like-virus-was-sent-to-wuhan-in-2013-report/story-VkKCUGaU0EtM1WsUWuJF0N.html

Swift, R. (2020) Japan supercomputer suggests changes to travel, work amid airborne virus threat, Reuters, July 9. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-japan-supercompute-idUSKBN2490PE?utm_campaign=trueAnthem%3A%20Trending%20Content&utm_medium=trueAnthem&utm_source=facebook&fbclid=IwAR3kvXi7rIYXhVPNFQVZlZKI1vFhKBkqyCUof3SxCVNhzui9W95citFstw0

Zhou, P., Yang, X., Wang, X. et al. A pneumonia outbreak associated with a new coronavirus of probable bat origin. Nature 579, 270–273 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2012-7

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