Why are there so few (or so many) circulating coronaviruses?

Trends Immunol. 2021 Sep;42(9):751-763. doi: 10.1016/j.it.2021.07.001. Epub 2021 Jul 12.


Despite vast diversity in non-human hosts and conspicuous recent spillover events, only a small number of coronaviruses have been observed to persist in human populations. This puzzling mismatch suggests substantial barriers to establishment. We detail hypotheses that might contribute to explain the low numbers of endemic coronaviruses, despite their considerable evolutionary and emergence potential. We assess possible explanations ranging from issues of ascertainment, historically lower opportunities for spillover, aspects of human demographic changes, and features of pathogen biology and pre-existing adaptive immunity to related viruses. We describe how successful emergent viral species must triangulate transmission, virulence, and host immunity to maintain circulation. Characterizing the factors that might shape the limits of viral persistence can delineate promising research directions to better understand the combinations of pathogens and contexts that are most likely to lead to spillover.

Keywords: antigenic space; cross-reactivity; landscape of immunity; viral ecology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biological Evolution
  • Coronavirus*
  • Virulence