The Medical Journal of Australia
John Wiley and Sons Inc.
News briefs
DOI 10.5694/mja2.50580, Volume: 212, Issue: 7,
Swannell: News briefs

The genetic quest to understand COVID‐19

Professor Edward Holmes, an evolutionary virologist at the Schools of Life and Environmental Sciences and of Medical Sciences at the University of Sydney, has co‐authored an article with Chinese colleagues published in Nature which reports that a coronavirus similar to that now infecting humans has been identified in Malayan pangolins in southern China. Understanding the pathway by which the novel coronavirus has passed from animals to humans will not only help during the current pandemic but will assist identify future threats from other zoonotic coronaviruses. “It is striking is that the pangolin viruses contain some genomic regions that are very closely related to the human virus,” said Professor Holmes. “The most important of these is the receptor binding domain that dictates how the virus is able to attach and infect human cells. It is clear that wildlife contains many coronaviruses that could potentially emerge in humans in the future. A crucial lesson from this pandemic to help prevent the next one is that humans must reduce their exposure to wildlife, for example by banning ‘wet markets’ and the trade in wildlife.” In a letter, published in Nature Medicine, Professor Holmes and colleagues wrote that SARS‐CoV‐2 was not a laboratory construct or deliberately manipulated virus. “In reality, this is the sort of natural disease emergence event that researchers in the field like myself have been warning about for many years.” In a third paper, a commentary published in Cell, Professor Holmes and his co‐author wrote that COVID‐19 “is likely to become the fifth endemic coronavirus in the human population”. They conclude that “coronaviruses clearly have the capacity to jump species boundaries and adapt to new hosts, making it straightforward to predict that more will emerge in the future”.

Microbiome may hold key to identifying cervical cancer risk

Gardnerella bacteria in the cervicovaginal microbiome may serve as a biomarker for identifying women infected with human papillomavirus (HPV) who are at risk of progression to pre‐cancer, according to a study published in PLoS Pathogens. Their findings could lead to therapeutic strategies that manipulate the microbiome to prevent disease progression. It is unclear why only a small proportion of high risk HPV infections progress to cervical cancer. The researchers therefore evaluated cervical samples from 273 participants in the Costa Rica HPV Vaccine Trial with such infections. They found that abundance of Lactobacillus iners was associated with clearance of high risk HPV infections, whereas Gardnerella bacteria were the dominant biomarker for progression, mediated by increased cervicovaginal bacterial diversity immediately before progression of a persistent infection to pre‐cancer. These findings suggest that monitoring Gardnerella and the subsequent elevation in microbial diversity could be used to identify women with persistent high risk HPV infections at higher risk of progression to pre‐cancer. If future studies support this hypothesis, it may be possible to manipulate the cervicovaginal microbiome so as to activate a local immune response and thereby prevent disease progression. briefs&author=Cate Swannell,&keyword=&subject=News,Health Perspectives, Policy and Education,News,