Covid breakthrough as virus origins tracked back 30 times further than previous reports

Long Covid victim discusses daily impact of virus

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COVID-19 has infected over 220 million people globally, and killed more than 4.55 million as of September 3. Countries across the world spent weeks, and in some cases months, under lockdown conditions to try to prevent the spread of the virus, and experts fear millions more could become infected in the near future. Closer to home, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been warned another dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases could be just around the corner with delays in booster jabs, schools returning and the arrival of colder weather.

As the UK recorded a further 38,154 cases yesterday, and 178 deaths within 28 days of a positive test, Sage member Professor Neil Ferguson said: “We expect to see a significant surge in cases, but whether that’s going to require any rolling back of the relaxation of restrictions is too early to say.”

In these trying times, scientists have been delving into the history of viral infections, which have subsequently caused pandemics.

Professor Aris Katzourakis led a study into the origins of sarbecoviruses – which include SARS-CoV1 and SARS-CoV2.

His team’s findings show that the most recent common ancestor of these viruses is nearly 30 times older than previous estimates, and existed more than 21,000 years ago.

READ MORE: Mystery illness killing dozens of children – scientists scramble


Oxford University scientists have discovered Covid-19’s most common ancestor is 21,000 years old. (Image: GETTY)

Oxford University.

A team of Oxford University researchers made the landmark findings. (Image: GETTY)

Prof Katzourakis said: “Finding the evolutionary origins of pandemic viral infections such as COVID-19 help us understand how long humanity may have been exposed to these viruses, how frequently they might have caused disease outbreaks in the past, and how likely they might be to cause novel outbreaks in future.”

Although viruses evolve rapidly over short timescales, in order to survive they must remain highly adapted to their hosts – which imposes restrictions on the mutations that they can accumulate, without reducing their fitness.

As a result, the apparent rate of evolution appears to slow down over time. 

Prof Katzourakis’ team’s research recreates this observed slowing of evolution for the first time.

Coronavirus vaccine

Coronavirus has infected more than 220 million people worldwide. (Image: GETTY)

Mahan Ghafari, an Oxford researcher, described the process: “We developed a new method that can recover the age of viruses over longer timescales and correct for a kind of ‘evolutionary relativity’, where the apparent rate of evolution depends on the timescale of measurement.

“Our estimate based on viral sequence data, of more than 21.000 years ago, is in remarkable concordance with a recent analysis on human genomic dataset that suggests infection with an ancient coronavirus around the same time.”

The new framework developed in this Oxford study will enable a much more reliable estimation of virus divergence across different timescales, potentially even over the entire course of animal and plant evolution.

The model can be applied to a much wider range of viruses, not just sarbecoviruses.


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Boris Johnson has been warned of an imminent surge in Covid cases. (Image: GETTY)

Model predictions for Hepatitis C, a leading global cause of liver disease, correlate with the idea that the virus has circulated for almost 500,000 years. 

Conclusions can therefore be made that Hepatitis C could have spread worldwide through an ‘Out-of-Africa’ migration around 150,000 years ago.

Different genotypes indigenous to human populations in different parts of Asia and Africa may have originated during this migration, and the model can now help to explain the puzzling global distribution of the virus.

Professor Peter Simmonds, also from Oxford, said: “With this new technique we can look much more widely at other viruses; re-evaluate the timescales of their deeper evolution and gain insights into host relationships that are key to understanding their ability to cause disease.”


The dreaded Bothrops jararacussu snake, similar to the above, could help eradicate Covid-19. (Image: GETTY)

Meanwhile, new research published in the journal Molecules has found an element in the deadly snake of a Brazilian snake can be used as a means of fighting COVID-19.

The results show an element in the potent venom can connect to an enzyme found in the coronavirus.

Initial results from experiments on monkey cells show the venom compound could stop the virus from replicating by up to 75 percent. 

The researchers are convinced their breakthrough could result in the development of new drugs to fight the virus wreaking havoc across the world.

Rafael Guido from the University of Sao Paolo said: “We were able to show this component of snake venom was able to inhibit a very important protein from the virus.”

Warnings were issued to opportunists looking to hunt the deadly snakes, however.

Giussepe Puorto, a reptile expert at the same university, said: “We’re wary about people going out to hunt the jararacassu around Brazil, thinking they’re going to save the world… That’s not it! It’s not the venom itself that will cure the coronavirus.”

They extracted fragments of a peptide – a short chain of amino acid – which can connect to the PLPro enzyme in SARS-CoV-2. 

This enzyme plays a vital role in the ability of the virus, which causes COVID-19, to reproduce.

Roy Walsh

Roy Walsh

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