New Delhi: China’s famous virologist Shi Zhengli, who is known for her research on viruses originating from animals, has warned about the potential emergence of a new coronavirus in the future. Shi, who gained her nickname “batwoman”, has stressed global readiness to combat such outbreaks, drawing from the lessons of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.
Shi is the director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Shi has been studying coronaviruses for over 20 years.
According to a report in the South China Morning Post(SCMP), Shi and her colleagues from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) published a paper in July 2023, in which they evaluated the human spillover risk of 40 coronavirus species and rated half of them as “highly risky”. Of these, six are already known to have caused diseases that infected humans, while there is evidence that a further three caused disease or infected other 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 study was based on an analysis of viral traits, including population, genetic diversity, host species and any previous history of zoonosis – diseases that jump from animals to humans. The researchers also identified important hosts of the pathogen, which include natural hosts such as bats and rodents, or possible intermediate hosts including camels, civets, pigs or pangolin. They also developed quick and sensitive testing tools that could be used to actively monitor these high-risk viruses.
As per the SCMP report, Shi’s paper gained attention on Chinese social media this month, as it coincided with the US federal agency’s decision to ban WIV from receiving funding for the next 10 years. Some US officials have accused WIV of conducting risky gain-of-function experiments on bat coronaviruses, and suggested that the COVID-19 pandemic leaked out of a Chinese lab. However, US intelligence documents from June said that there was no conclusive evidence supporting the lab leak hypothesis.
Shi’s warning comes as the world is still struggling to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 4.5 million people and infected over 230 million people worldwide.