Ilya R. Fischhoff, Adrian A. Castellanos, João P.G.L.M. Rodrigues, Arvind Varsani, Barbara A. Han: Predicting the zoonotic capacity of mammals to transmit SARS-CoV-2, in: bioRxiv (June 29, 2021), online in: https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.02.18.431844.
Back and forth transmission of SARS-CoV-2 between humans and animals may lead to wild reservoirs of virus that can endanger efforts toward long-term control of COVID-19 in people, and protecting vulnerable animal populations that are particularly susceptible to lethal disease. Predicting high risk host species is key to targeting field surveillance and lab experiments that validate host zoonotic potential. A major bottleneck to predicting animal hosts is the small number of species with available molecular information about the structure of ACE2, a key cellular receptor required for viral cell entry. We overcome this bottleneck by combining species’ ecological and biological traits with 3D modeling of virus and host cell protein interactions using machine learning methods. This approach enables predictions about the zoonotic capacity of SARS-CoV-2 for over 5,000 mammals — an order of magnitude more species than previously possible. The high accuracy predictions achieved by this approach are strongly corroborated by in vivo empirical studies. We identify numerous common mammal species whose predicted zoonotic capacity and close proximity to humans may further enhance the risk of spillover and spillback transmission of SARS-CoV-2. Our results reveal high priority areas of geographic overlap between global COVID-19 hotspots and potential new mammal hosts of SARS-CoV-2. With molecular sequence data available for only a small fraction of potential host species, predictive modeling integrating data across multiple biological scales offers a conceptual advance that may expand our predictive capacity for zoonotic viruses with similarly unknown and potentially broad host ranges.