January 24, 2022

Q&A #11: Animal reservoirs


Attached are some recent papers on SARS-CoV-2 in mink, mice, rats, deer, lions, hamsters, cats, etc. There have also been headlines about hamsters in a Hong Kong pet store testing positive.

In one of your first letters, I recalled you saying: "It’s certainly also worth mentioning that mutations in the S protein (i.e., exactly the same protein that is subject to selection of escape mutations) are known to enable Coronaviruses to cross species barriers."

What is the role of this wide variety of animal reservoirs in the future of the pandemic? How significant are the selective pressures of these different host environments on the evolution of the virus? Is this something to be concerned about?


Animal reservoirs will increase the spectrum of highly infectious variants the virus can choose from when put under massive S-directed immune pressure. Omicron has already become largely resistant to S-directed immune pressure but mass vaccination against Omicron would of course revert that situation.  The more variants exist (including animal-derived variants), the more readily the virus could select a variant candidate that is capable of rapidly* adapting to the vaccinated population upon the latter’s exposure to animal reservoirs.

* i.e., paying a relatively low fitness cost to resist S-directed immune pressure on Omicron

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Geert Vanden Bossche received his DVM from the University of Ghent, Belgium, and his PhD degree in Virology from the University of Hohenheim, Germany. He held adjunct faculty appointments at universities in Belgium and Germany. After his career in Academia, Geert joined several vaccine companies (GSK Biologicals, Novartis Vaccines, Solvay Biologicals) to serve various roles in vaccine R&D as well as in late vaccine development.

Geert then moved on to join the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Health Discovery team in Seattle (USA) as Senior Program Officer; he then worked with the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) in Geneva as Senior Ebola Program Manager. At GAVI he tracked efforts to develop an Ebola vaccine. He also represented GAVI in fora with other partners, including WHO, to review progress on the fight against Ebola and to build plans for global pandemic preparedness.

Back in 2015, Geert scrutinized and questioned the safety of the Ebola vaccine that was used in ring vaccination trials conducted by WHO in Guinea. His critical scientific analysis and report on the data published by WHO in the Lancet in 2015 was sent to all international health and regulatory authorities involved in the Ebola vaccination program. After working for GAVI, Geert joined the German Center for Infection Research in Cologne as Head of the Vaccine Development Office. He is at present primarily serving as a Biotech / Vaccine consultant while also conducting his own research on Natural Killer cell-based vaccines.


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