Bat scientist offers hope to beat coronavirus ‘sneakier than SARS’

Stephen Chen, South China Morning Post

Posted at Feb 07 2020 09:19 AM

Bat scientist offers hope to beat coronavirus ‘sneakier than SARS’ 1
The ultrastructural morphology exhibited by the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV), which was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China, is seen in an illustration released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, US. Jan. 29, 2020. Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM/CDC/Handout via Reuters

Shi Zhengli has spent a lot of time in smelly caves, poking around in bat droppings. The world may well prove thankful she did.

Shi has hiked into deep mountains across 28 of China's provinces, finding the dark places where bats live. Then it was zipping on layers of protective clothing, head to toe.

Breathing protection was next and then stepping into the caves to search for the creatures and collect their droppings, many different kinds of bat in all kinds of caves.

What she found she brought back to the National Biosafety Laboratory in Wuhan, Hubei province, for analysis. After more than a decade of work, she built one of the world's largest databases of bat-related viruses.


It was that database that Shi's team turned to when a new infectious coronavirus caused an outbreak in China at the end of December.

Her team was the first to identify that the coronavirus that was killing people by causing pneumonia was a direct descendant of a wild strain they culled from the droppings of a fruit bat in Yunnan province, sharing 96 per cent of genes.

Her work gave a head start to the scientific research community's understanding of the origin of the new virus.

Work like this usually gets plaudits and praise, and sure enough Shi moved into the limelight. But for all the wrong reasons.

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Daily internet searches for Shi's name increased 2,000 times from the average in a recent week, yet most posts on China's internet and social media about her were negative. Some people called Shi the "mother of the devil".

The flood of attacks came with allegations that the new coronavirus had escaped from her laboratory, which is in the same city, Wuhan, where the outbreak happened.

As the attacks increased, Shi felt forced to respond. On Sunday afternoon she sent a message to all her friends on the social media site WeChat: "I swear with my life, (the virus) has nothing to do with the lab."


Shi is one of the scores of scientists joining a global effort to hunt down the virus. In China and many other countries, laboratories are decoding its genes, analysing the molecular structure, and tackling its rapid transmission in the population as it killed hundreds and sickened thousands. The overarching search is for a cure.

For many of those scientists and the public, the coronavirus has drawn comparisons with the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in 2002-03. It also killed and sickened people, mostly in mainland China and Hong Kong, and was also linked to a bat virus.

But "the virus is sneakier than Sars", Chinese virologist Zeng Guang said.

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As a result, some researchers made misjudgments about its behaviour and make up, and were lured to erroneous conclusions.

As the death toll climbs, businesses struggle, and the lives of hundreds of millions of people are affected, some members of the public are turning their anger against the scientists.

The virus did not show any sign of human-to-human transmission at the start, said Dr Gao Fu, director of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, at the initial stage of the outbreak.


The early cases were all linked to a seafood market, which also sold wild animals, he said in a press conference on January 22. The scientists found the viral strains on some of the animals in the market, and reasoned that this might be the source of the infection.

This led to the shutdown of the seafood market, but the local government then failed to impose stricter measures. Most people were focused on the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday.

Public events took place as scheduled, attracting large crowds of people. About 5 million people then left the city in the transport rush before the holiday, spreading out to many other Chinese cities and different parts of the world.

Gao, an Oxford graduate and world-renowned virologist who battled the deadly Ebola virus in Africa, started getting attacked by an angry public for underestimating the situation.

On social media, his detractors called him the "paper academic", who did nothing but publish papers in academic journals. In defence, Gao said he had been fighting the virus at the very front line since the outbreak, "with no (time to) sleep", according to an interview published in Caixin magazine on Saturday.


But it was not only China's scientists proving prone to error.

In a widely cited paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine, a group of German researchers reported that a Shanghai woman infected four colleagues in Germany when on a business trip, yet she had no symptoms as a virus carrier.

This raised alarms around the world that people could pass on the virus while not showing symptoms. However, it turned out the researchers did not talk to the woman back in China about her actual condition while in Germany.

Later, German health authorities did follow up and found she was experiencing some symptoms during her two-day stay near Munich. This oversight damaged the reputation of all the German researchers involved and by extension others in Western countries involved in the paper's publication.

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But the new coronavirus may indeed be transmitted by people not showing symptoms, according to Chinese health authorities, who cited cases in a number of Chinese provinces. It makes fighting the virus much more challenging than outbreaks with visible symptoms, such as Sars.

Then a group of Indian scientists released a paper purportedly tackling the mystery of how the virus made the jump from bat to human. The paper suggested the virus was likely man-made because it carried four sequences of genes allegedly from HIV.

The so-called HIV inserts, however, can also be found in many natural life forms including other bat-related viruses, bacterium and sharks. After being debunked by genetic experts, including Harvard professor David Liu as "bad analysis", the Indian team retracted the paper.


Meanwhile, scientists did have more weapons than before to fight the emerging virus. The coronavirus was isolated and determined to be the cause of the pneumonia outbreak in Wuhan by Chinese scientists at "record speed", according to the World Health Organisation.

The whole genome sequence of the virus was quickly uploaded to an international database, allowing other countries to come up with test kits to screen suspected cases. Clinical tests for a number of candidate drugs are underway because scientists used computer models to choose the most effective drugs to suppress the viral transmission.

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But as in other battle, the scientists can get hit by friendly fire.

The Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica, for instance, said it had found that a traditional Chinese medicine known as Shuanghuanglian Oral Liquid had wiped out the virus in human cells in a test-tube experiment.

The institute said the results were preliminary and needed to be verified by clinical trials, which were under way.

However, state media including People's Daily dubbed it as a "breakthrough", prompting a nationwide run on sales of the drug at pharmacies. Doctors criticised the misleading reports, adding that Shuanghuanglian had side effects. Soon the public's rage was falling on the institute.

"Our morale was definitely hit, like taking shells from friendly artillery from behind," said a scientist involved in the programme, who requested not to be named in fear of attacks on social media. "But we have recovered from the shock and returned to the fight," he said.


According to surveys in mainland China about career perceptions, scientists were regarded as the most respectable professionals. Despite missteps, scientists are still leading the charge at ages when most people would be well retired.

Zhong Nanshan, an epidemiologist who discovered the Sars coronavirus in 2003, is at the frontline of research to defeat the new coronavirus at the age of 83. Zhejiang University school of medicine professor Li Lanjuan, 74, is also in the trench.

They proposed a series of measures including the lock down of Wuhan, and won wide-respect for speaking out at difficult moments of the outbreak.

Shi Zhengli, meanwhile, is leading a joint effort with scientists from different disciplines to try and find ways to defeat the new coronavirus.

For instance, the researchers still cannot fully establish the connection of the virus to all the symptoms observed in model animals, they do not know how fast it mutates, nor the effect of potential drugs.

When asked to comment about the social media attacks, she said only: "My time must be spent on more important matters."


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