Italian and Chinese researchers work together on coronavirus mutations
by Giuseppe Pezzolla

The young researcher Domenico Benvenuto, from the Biomedical Campus of Rome, managed to discover the mutant gene that allowed the coronavirus to pass from bats to humans. The Roman university has been collaborating with Chinese scholars since the SARS epidemic. To combat the virus, quarantine and isolation are useful, racist and synophobic attitudes are useless. The young researcher was born in the same city as Giovanni da Montecorvino, first bishop of Beijing (1247-1328).

Rome (AsiaNews) - Collaboration between Italian and Chinese researchers on coronavirus mutations: this is what Rome Biomedical Campus university student Domenico Benvenuto, hopes for. 10 days ago he discovered the genetic point where coronavirus mutates and attacks humans, a fundamental discovery for the search for effective therapies against the epidemic that is spreading throughout China and in the world. The research director, Dr. Massimo Ciccozzi, and Domenico Benvenuto (photo 2) tend to emphasize that the epidemic is fought with quarantine and isolation and that there is no need for racist and "synophobic" behavoir. One detail: the young researcher was born in the same city as Giovanni da Montecorvino, the first bishop of Beijing (1247-1328).

The Rome Biomedical Campus has collaborated with China since the time of Sars (2003). In the following years, a Chinese delegation came to Italy to study its care models and initiate Beijing's health care reform. From those contacts the China-Italy-Shaanxi Vacational Training Program was born. The Istituto Superiore di Sanità and the Rome Biomedical Campus also worked with Chinese researchers from Xi'an Medical University and Provincial People's Hospital.

Below our interview with Dr. Massimo Ciccozzi and Domenico Benvenuto.


Prof. Ciccozzi, we are facing a new common enemy, how can we defeat it?

The epidemic stops with quarantine and isolation, precautionary measures that the Chinese first and gradually we and all other countries have already adopted.

Your team has reconstructed what we can call the "family tree" of the coronavirus and its mutant gene. What more can you tell us?

We made a mathematical model that serves to show how this protein underwent a mutation at a specific point that allowed it to move from bats to humans. The Journal of Medical Virology and Pathogen and Global Heath have already published our work and other articles are about to be published in prestigious scientific journals. The author of this discovery is Domenico Benvenuto. Who will now explain the details.

D.B .: This protein is the Spike glycoprotein that is outside the Coronavirus and pretends to be a molecule that is already physiologically present in our body. So when it encounters the receptor responsible for connecting to that molecule, the virus takes advantage of it: as it is similar to this protein, it attacks and begins to enter the human cell and viral contagion

What weapons are there against this protein?

We studied it from a genetic point of view and through the sequences we reconstructed the protein and through homology models we recreated the three-dimensional protein.

Will your study help develop a specific vaccine?

Certainly it puts the mutations that are present in this protein in a different light and identifies some amino acids that have changed and that are typical of this virus, just like the knurling of a key that are different for each lock. We have identified some of the typical knurling of the virus.

How do you explain the fear of contagion that is feeding a certain synophobia these days?

This fear of the Chinese community is unmotivated. Attention must certainly be paid to people who come or have stayed in areas where there are viruses and epidemics. But it is not said that they are Chinese. In any case, synophobia is an irrational fear.

A few days after your unpublished study, the coronavirus was isolated and sequenced at the Spallanzani Institute in Rome. You first in the world, they first in Europe. In Padua, on the other hand, Italian researchers created the synthesis of the rapid diagnostic kit for coronavirus. The third result for Italian research in just three days. What can such research say to Chinese research friends?

These important results are part of an international network of collaboration between researchers. The results are shared online and validated from a scientific point of view, then they can be used by everyone. This is already a first phase of collaboration with the Chinese. This time they shared their information in a timely manner and immediately implemented control measures, so as an international community of researchers, we can all work together to stem this epidemic.

Can the results obtained develop research in Chinese laboratories?

To my knowledge, it seems to me that in Hong Kong they have already identified some possible therapies. They too are already at work.

Montecorvino Rovella, your hometown (just 15 thousand inhabitants) is well known in China. Or am I wrong?

Well, there is a coincidence that makes me smile. Giovanni da Montecorvino, the first Catholic bishop of Beijing, who is revered as a saint in China, is my fellow citizen: he and I come from the same village near Salerno.

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