East Asia endured a coronavirus epidemic 20,000 years ago, according to a new study from Queensland University of Technology. The researchers have discovered traces of the outbreak in the genetic makeup of people from the region, which is now China, Japan, Mongolia, North Korea, South Korea, and Taiwan.
“The modern human genome contains evolutionary information tracing back tens of thousands of years, like studying the rings of a tree gives us insight into the conditions it experienced as it grew,” explained study co-author Professor Alexandrov.
There have been three severe outbreaks of coronaviruses in the last 20 years. By far the worst of these events is the ongoing outbreak SARS-CoV-2, which has claimed 3.8 million lives over the last 18 months.
In 2002, SARS-CoV infections led to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which killed more than 800 people. More than 850 people were killed by Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, which was caused by the coronavirus MERS-CoV.
Using genetic data from the 1000 Genomes Project, the QUT looked for changes in the genes coding for SARS-CoV-2 interacting proteins.
“Computational scientists on the team applied evolutionary analysis to the human genomic dataset to discover evidence that the ancestors of East Asian people experienced an epidemic of a coronavirus-induced disease similar to COVID-19,” said Professor Alexandrov.
“In the course of the epidemic, selection favored variants of pathogenesis-related human genes with adaptive changes presumably leading to a less severe disease.”
“By developing greater insights into the ancient viral foes, we gain understanding of how genomes of different human populations adapted to the viruses that have been recently recognised as a significant driver of human evolution.”
“Another important offshoot of this research is the ability to identify viruses that have caused epidemic in the distant past and may do so in the future.”
“This, in principle, enables us to compile a list of potentially dangerous viruses and then develop diagnostics, vaccines and drugs for the event of their return.”
The study is published in the journal Current Biology.