The MERS coronavirus (Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus) is a zoonotic virus that can infect humans from its dromedary camel reservoir. The virus can cause a severe lung disease in humans that often ends in death. Berend-Jan Bosch (Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Utrecht University), Bart Haagmans (Erasmus MC) and their colleagues have discovered that the virus uses sugar molecules to enter the host cell. Their findings were recently published in the scientific journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

Bosch and Haagmans conducted research into how the MERS coronavirus attaches to the cell. “Together with our colleagues from the Erasmus MC in Rotterdam, we previously demonstrated that the MERS coronavirus binds one of the host cell proteins (DPP4) to enter the cell”, says Bosch who coordinated the study.

Clear preference

“Now we have discovered that the MERS coronavirus also attaches to sugar molecules called sialic acids in order to infect human lung cells. The virus appears to have a clear binding preference for specific sialic acids. Given the diversity in sialic acids and their distribution among different animals and humans, we expect that the observed sialic acid fine-specificity may influence the virus’ host and tissue tropism, and its transmission.”

Publication in PNAS

The study was conducted in collaboration with several Dutch and international partners. The publication was recently published in the scientific journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).