A recently identified pig virus could pose a potentially lethal threat to human populations, research suggests.

Lab tests show that porcine deltacoronavirus, first detected in China in 2012, readily jumps between the cells of different species including humans.

The pathogen shows similarities to the deadly viruses responsible for Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and Mers (Middle East respiratory syndrome) which together have claimed more than 1,000 lives.

Professor Linda Saif, who took part in the US study at Ohio State University, said: “We’re very concerned about emerging coronaviruses and worry about the harm they can do to animals and their potential to jump to humans.”

When first identified in pigs in China, porcine deltacoronavirus was not associated with disease.

The new research, reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows how the virus targets a specific receptor molecule on the surface of cells lining the airways and digestive tract.

In the laboratory the virus bound to the receptor not only in pigs, as expected, but also chickens, cats and humans.

Lead researcher Dr Scott Kenney, from Ohio State University’s Food Animal Health Research Programme, said, “A receptor is like a lock in the door. If the virus can pick the lock, it can get into the cell and potentially infect the host. From that point, it’s just a matter of whether it can replicate within the cells and cause disease in those animals and humans.”

So far no human is known to have been infected by porcine deltacoronavirus.