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Updated on 04/08/2016


Identity card of the virus and role of ANSES

Keywords : Zoonosis, Animal health, Animal diseases, Coronavirus

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that affect many different animal species and, in some cases, also humans. They can cause a wide range of diseases, but primarily infect the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. In terms of public health, the most well-known coronavirus is the virus that caused the SARS epidemic (severe acute respiratory syndrome). In September 2012, a novel coronavirus was detected in the Middle East in patients who had developed symptoms during the 2nd quarter of 2012. The origin of this virus has not yet been fully established. It is however very similar to the SARS-CoV virus, and to viruses that usually affect certain species of bats. One current hypothesis concerning the origin of the virus is that it adapted to one or more other animal species closer to humans, thus enabling human infection. This family of viruses is presented below, along with the work of the Agency on animal coronaviruses.

Coronaviruses in brief

Coronaviruses are a group of viruses that affect various animal species including dogs, cats, pigs, birds and bats, while some also affect humans. They can cause a wide range of diseases, but mainly affect the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. From a public health perspective, the most well-known coronavirus is the virus that caused the 2002/2003 SARS epidemic that infected nearly 8000 people. In the area of animal health, many coronaviruses have been detected and affect primarily dogs and cats, but also pigs, ruminants, birds, and wild animals. These viruses are generally each highly specific to an animal species. The severity of the infections they cause is highly variable, ranging in humans from mild rhinitis to serious respiratory diseases like SARS, which can be fatal. In veterinary medicine, infections with these viruses can have a substantial economic impact, particularly on farms for young ruminants or in chickens and turkeys.


A novel coronavirus detected at the end of 2012

In September 2012, a novel coronavirus unknown in humans was isolated in the Middle East in a patient who had developed symptoms similar to those of SARS at the end of the 2nd quarter 2012. Since this new virus was identified, a surveillance system has been established under the coordination of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) in order to detect other possible cases. In France, this system has been operational since December 2012 and is coordinated by the French Institute for Public Health Surveillance (InVS). Most of the cases of infection with this novel virus were reported in the Arabian Peninsula, and more recently in Europe.

The number of cases associated with this virus is therefore low, but given the seriousness of the symptoms that it can cause, the national and international health authorities have remained vigilant and are monitoring the virus closely.


ANSES activities concerning this family of viruses

Coronaviruses are able to adapt through sudden changes to their genetic material such as deletions, mutations, and recombinations, enabling them to infect new target organs or to adapt to new host species. In this way, the coronavirus associated with the SARS epidemic in 2003 resulted from adaptation of a coronavirus initially present in bats to a small carnivore, the masked palm civet, consumed by people in China, followed by adaptation to humans. The novel coronavirus, called nCoV or HCoV-EMC, which has likely been present in the Arabian Peninsula since the 2nd quarter of 2012 probably also originated in animals, although its exact origin is not yet known.

Understanding the mechanisms that enable an animal virus to acquire the ability to infect other animal species or humans, known as crossing the species barrier, is a major area of activity for ANSES. Several of the Agency’s laboratories work on this topic for various pathogenic agents, including coronaviruses.

The Maisons-Alfort Animal Health Laboratory works on coronaviruses that affect dogs and cats. This work, carried out in collaboration with the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) and the National Veterinary School of Maison Alfort as part of a joint research unit, focuses on transmission of coronavirus infection between the canine and feline species. This team also investigates the relationships between the viruses in this family. Their work has demonstrated, for instance, the presence in cats of strains of coronavirus resulting from recombination between feline coronaviruses (FCoV) and canine enteric coronaviruses (CCoV). The laboratory also aims to identify the genes responsible for the virulence of feline coronaviruses.

The ANSES Laboratory in Ploufragan works on coronaviruses that affect poultry. The viruses of interest are responsible for respiratory diseases and significant reductions in egg-laying volumes often found in chickens and in laying hens (infectious bronchitis), and for gastrointestinal disorders in poults (enteritis mortality syndrome). The studies carried out by the laboratory have two objectives: to characterise genetic changes associated with emergence of new viral strains in chickens and hens, and to characterise target species and the turkey coronavirus genome. The first strains of this virus isolated in Europe were obtained by the laboratory in 2008. Like the strains found in North America, they appear to have emerged spontaneously through genetic recombination involving the chicken infectious bronchitis virus.

Finally, as demonstrated by the emergence of the SARS virus, wild animals constitute a potential source of new coronaviruses that are pathogenic in humans. The ANSES Laboratory for Rabies and Wildlife in Nancy is involved in trying to determine the exact role played by wild animals in the transmission of these viruses, in order to establish suitable control methods for these pathogens, as is already done for rabies, tuberculosis, echinococcosis, tularaemia, haemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome (HFRS), chikungunya, and Lyme disease, among others.

Thanks to their expertise in this area, ANSES teams involved in studies on animal coronaviruses work in conjunction with other teams in research organisations in France (INRA-National Veterinary School of Toulouse, Institut Pasteur, University Hospital Centre of Caen) and with other European teams to develop various national or European research projects on the relationships between animal and human coronaviruses.