13 years ago, HK scientists saw Covid-2019-like virus coming

TV Jayan New Delhi | Updated on February 20, 2020

The Covid-2019 has so far killed over 2,004 people and more than 74,000 cases have been confiirmed in China alone REUTERS   -  REUTERS

‘Reservoir of viruses in bats, and culture of eating exotic mammals, is a ticking time bomb’


A team of microbiologists from Hong Kong University who studied the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak about 13 years ago had warned of yet another devastating coronavirus (CoV) in areas around Wuhan, the epicentre of the Covid-19 today.

“The presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb,” the scientists, led by Kwok Yung Yuen at State Key Laboratory of Emerging Infectious Diseases at Hong Kong University, had cautioned in a paper published in the journal Clinical Microbiology Reviews in October 2007. They had warned the possibility of the re-emergence of the SARS or other novel viruses from animal or laboratories studying them and called on authorities to beef up preparedness.

The scientists, who scoured nearly 4,000 research papers that came out in the aftermath of the 2003 SARS epidemic which killed over 770 people in China and elsewhere, said this was because there were major gaps in the understanding of the SARS-CoV which was the infective agent.

Significantly, another research team led by Yuen last month found that 82 per cent of the genome of the virus that caused Covid-19 is similar to 2003 SARS-CoV viral strain.

The scientists published the paper in the journal Emerging Microbes and Infections after isolating the virus genome from a patient affected by the 2019-CoV infection. The current epidemic has so far killed over 2004 people and more than 74,000 confirmed cases in China alone.

Transmission by wildlife

According to recent estimates published by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, three out of four new or emerging diseases in humans are transmitted by wildlife.

Yet, scientists are still in the dark about how the virus jumped to humans and are not ruling out the possibility of any wild animals including bats, snakes and even pangolins — some of them eaten in many parts of the mainland China — as the hosts.

Understanding which animal the virus spread from can have a profound impact on how we manage future outbreaks.

Published on February 20, 2020

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