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'Highly risky': China's 'batwoman' issues stark warning of future coronavirus-like outbreaks

Chinese virologist Shi Zhengli warns of future coronavirus emergence, emphasizing global readiness, as she and her colleagues evaluate the human spillover risk of various coronaviruses.

Highly risky China's 'batwoman' issues stark warning of future coronavirus-like outbreaks snt
First Published Sep 25, 2023, 4:37 PM IST

Renowned Chinese virologist Shi Zhengli, famously known as "batwoman" due to her research on animal-origin viruses, has issued a stark warning about the potential emergence of a new coronavirus in the future. Her call for global readiness to combat such outbreaks is based on the lessons learned from the devastating Covid-19 pandemic. Shi is currently serving as the director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and has dedicated over two decades to studying coronaviruses.

A recent report in the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reveals that Shi, along with her colleagues from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), published a paper in July 2023. This paper assessed the human spillover risk associated with 40 different species of coronaviruses, classifying half of them as "highly risky." Of these, six species are already known to have caused diseases in humans, while there is evidence suggesting that three others have caused diseases or infected various animal species. The study warned that "it is almost certain that there will be future disease emergence and it is highly likely a [coronavirus] disease again".

The basis of this study lay in an in-depth analysis of various viral traits, including factors such as population, genetic diversity, host species, and any prior history of zoonotic transmission, which refers to diseases jumping from animals to humans. Furthermore, the research identified key hosts of these pathogens, ranging from natural hosts like bats and rodents to potential intermediate hosts such as camels, civets, pigs, or pangolins. Additionally, the study also led to the development of rapid and sensitive testing tools to actively monitor these high-risk viruses.

The SCMP report noted that Shi's paper gained significant attention on Chinese social media in recent times. This attention coincided with the decision of a US federal agency to prohibit funding to the Wuhan Institute of Virology for the next decade. Some US officials had previously accused the institute of conducting risky gain-of-function experiments involving bat coronaviruses and suggested that the Covid-19 pandemic may have originated from a Chinese lab. However, it's worth noting that as of June, US intelligence documents had found no conclusive evidence supporting the lab-leak hypothesis.

Shi Zhengli's warning comes at a time when the world is still grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic. The virus has claimed the lives of more than 4.5 million people and infected over 230 million individuals worldwide, underscoring the urgency of global preparedness for future potential outbreaks.

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