Top scientists are calling for a “quantum leap” in research on bat viruses to avoid the next pandemic, while saying that a failure to listen to alarm bells rung by those already doing this work has led to the Covid-19 crisis.
Writing in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, 10 eminent scientists – including from the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases – said warnings about the risks of bat coronaviruses causing human disease had gone unheeded for years, and there had been no sense of urgency to address the concerns.
“Our prolonged deafness now exacts a tragic price,” the scientists said in the article published on Wednesday, as global Covid-19 infections passed 15 million.
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“Important research that has languished, been underfunded or discontinued should be greatly expanded to deal with the urgency of the situation, and more scientists, including scientists working in China and other hotspot countries, should be recruited to these efforts, especially in international research partnerships,” the scientists said.
The article comes after research monitoring coronaviruses in bats appeared earlier this year to be caught in the political crossfire around the novel coronavirus.
The virus was first identified in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year. It is believed to have passed into humans from bats, perhaps through an intermediary animal, but the exact pathway it took is unknown and has been at the centre of heated controversy.
US President Donald Trump has sought to blame the outbreak on China, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has claimed, without providing evidence, that the virus may have been the result of a lab accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which studies such viruses.
The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in April abruptly terminated active grant funding for a project monitoring bat coronaviruses in China run by respected New York-based non-profit group EcoHealth Alliance, saying the project did not align with programme goals.
EcoHealth Alliance researchers had worked with those from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and their past collaborative research has been published in top scientific journals.
Anthony Fauci, director of the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases last month told US news outlet Politico that the directive to cut the research funding had come from the White House. The NIH did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In addition to calling for more funding, the journal article – funded in part by an intramural research programme of the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases – pushed back on assertions that the disease could have been bioengineered or the product of a lab accident.
Instead, the researchers pointed to the urgent need for a better understanding of the natural emergence of the novel coronavirus in humans.
They noted that it was the third deadly coronavirus to pass into humans in the space of two decades, after the viruses that cause Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars).
Each of those three viruses, based on genetic analysis of available data, are thought to have emerged from horseshoe bats.
But coronaviruses are “globally distributed in a large but unknown number of animal species” and there is a high risk of future coronavirus outbreaks, the scientists said.
In particular, they pointed to the need to monitor “hotspots” for bat coronaviruses, such as south and southwest China, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, where Sars-like viruses have been found in various bat species and where there was “pandemic potential”.
Getting a handle on these threats would require more active research into the viruses found in animals and humans, particularly in hotspots, as well as looking at the kinds of human behaviour and environmental disruption that may create more risks for spillover.
Little is yet known about how the latest coronavirus crossed into humans, and the researchers stressed that finding those answers, and using them for prevention, was critical.
While science is now “sufficiently robust” to have a good chance of controlling a pandemic within two to three years, they wrote that it was “dramatically insufficient to prevent and control their emergences in the first place”.
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This article Coronavirus: top scientists push for ‘quantum leap’ in bat virus research to avoid new pandemic first appeared on South China Morning Post