One of China’s most well-known virologists, has warned that another coronavirus like COVID-19 is “extremely likely” to emerge in the future. The Coronavirus disease 2019 caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2 was first identified in Wuhan, China.
Dr. Shi Zhengli, commonly known as “Batwoman,” who earned her moniker from her research into viruses that spread from animals to humans, warned in a recent paper co-written with colleagues that the world must be prepared for another disease like Covid-19 because “if a coronavirus caused diseases to emerge previously, there is a high chance it will cause future outbreaks.”
Coronaviruses were responsible for both the 2003 SARS outbreak, which killed thousands of people globally, primarily in mainland China and Hong Kong, and Covid-19.
Dr. Shi’s team from the Wuhan Institute of Virology analysed the human spillover risk of 40 coronavirus species in this study and classified half of them as “highly risky.”
Six of them are already known to have caused diseases that infected humans, while three more are known to have caused disease or infected other animal species.
“It is almost certain that there will be future disease emergence, and it is highly likely that it will be a [coronavirus] disease again,” the study cautioned.
China Downplayed the Coronavirus
The research was based on an examination of viral features such as population, genetic diversity, host species, and any history of zoonosis (diseases that spread from animals to humans).
Although this study was published in the English-language journal Emerging Microbes & Infections in July, it only recently acquired traction on Chinese social media.
This could be due to the fact that the report was not published in Chinese, but a scientist from the country’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention believes it also reflects a desire to move on from the subject following China’s rapid reversal of zero-Covid regulations.
“Sometimes in private conversations, when talking with other public health scholars, we have noticed that Chinese authorities, whether intentionally or unintentionally, are downplaying Covid-19, and some cities have stopped releasing infection data,” he added.
Because he is not authorised to speak to the media, the scientist spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The Wuhan team also discovered rapid and sensitive testing techniques that might be used to actively monitor these high-risk viruses.
Dictionary of coronaviruses
Dr. Shi and her colleagues also discovered key pathogen hosts, which include natural hosts like bats and rodents as well as possible intermediate animals including camels, civets, pigs, and pangolins.
While most virology studies go deep into a given virus to investigate its various features and mechanisms, the CDC expert described this research as more akin to a “dictionary of coronaviruses.”
“Such studies are not considered groundbreaking or technically challenging, and thus are less valued in the field,” he explained, “but they are important.”
“Just as we need a mushroom textbook to avoid eating noxious mushrooms, we need pathogen-specific tools.”
According to the expert, having such knowledge will help speed up the process of testing and creating vaccinations in future public health crises. Given the high level of sensitivity around Shi’s work, many Chinese virologists were hesitant to remark.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology has been haunted by allegations, advanced by some US legislators, that Covid-19 was the result of an unintentional leak from the lab.
Many scientists believe the disease is more likely to have originated from a virus in animals, possibly bats, that then jumped to people via an unexplained host.
According to declassified US intelligence documents disclosed in June, there is no evidence to back up the lab leak idea, but it cannot be ruled out.
“I think society as a whole is trying to move away from pandemic trauma and look forward, which is understandable,” the CDC expert added.
“However, there hasn’t been much discussion about what we should learn from this outbreak and how we can be better prepared in the future.”