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Explained: Why pet cats (and possibly lions and tigers) are vulnerable to coronavirus

Next to humans, ferrets, and then cats, are the most vulnerable to coronavirus infection, new research finds. How does it reach this conclusion, and what about big cats?

Written by Kabir Firaque | New Delhi |
Updated: December 21, 2020 3:07:04 pm
New evidence why pet cats (and possibly lions and tigers) are so vulnerable to coronavirusDomestic cats can be infected with the novel coronavirus, new studies show. (File Photo)

Reports at various stages during the pandemic have shown that domestic cats, as well as lions and tigers, can be infected with the novel coronavirus. New research has provided evidence for what makes pet cats vulnerable, adding to the findings of previous studies — and the general understanding — that felines are susceptible because their cellular structure facilitates coronavirus infection. The latest research comes from the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) headquartered in Barcelona — incidentally the same city where four zoo lions were found positive for coronavirus last week. The paper is published in the journal PLOS Computational Biology.

THE MECHANISM: The coronavirus initiates infection using the spike protein on its surface. On the surface of the human cell are proteins called ACE2 receptors. The spike protein binds with the ACE2 receptor, then invades the cell and goes on to replicate. The same mechanism takes place in coronavirus infection of other species, too.

Vulnerability to coronavirus infection, compared to humans. Based on the binding affinity of each species’ ACE2 receptors with SARS CoV-2 spike protein. (Source: Centre for Genomic Regulation)

WHAT’S NEW: The new research looks at the ACE2 receptors of 10 different species and compares their affinity for binding with the virus spike protein. The researchers used computer modelling to test this. They also compared the “codon adaptation index” — which is a measure of how efficiently the virus replicates after entering the cell.

They found that the most vulnerable species next to humans are ferrets, followed by cats, civets and dogs. These species ticked both boxes — binding affinity and codon adaptation index. 📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram

BIG CATS: Before the Barcelona Zoo lions, seven tigers and lions had tested positive at New York’s Bronx Zoo earlier. Does the reason why domestic cats are vulnerable also apply to big cats?

“We have not looked at the genome of big felines,” CRG Director Luis Serrano, senior author of the study, said by email, “but I assumed that since cats can be infected, there is a big chance that lions and tigers will as well, since they will be very close in sequence.”

PREVIOUS FINDINGS: Earlier this year, a larger study had compared the vulnerability of over 400 studies (The Indian Express, September 1). It was based on an analysis of amino acids in the ACE2 receptor. That one found cats and Siberian tigers at medium risk, behind humans, some other primate species, and dolphins.

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