Seven years ago, scientists knew about the coronavirus, which at that time were only bats.
Before entering the cave, a small group of scientists wear protective suits, masks and thick gloves to cover every inch of their skin. Contact with bat bats can put them under the influence of the potentially deadliest and still unknown viruses.
With special flashlights on their heads, scientists set their nets at the entrance to the dark cave. It is part of an extensive network of caves in southwest China in Yunnan. After that, scientists patiently wait for the darkness. When the sun goes down, thousands of bats fly out of the cave in search of food, but on the way get into the net, – writes CNN.
Scientists carefully dip the bats into sleep with light anesthesia before taking a blood sample from veins on their wings.
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“We also take fecal smears and collect litter,” said Peter Dashak, head of the American non-governmental organization EcoHealth Alliance. His organization specializes in detecting new viruses to prevent pandemics.
Dashak is a virus hunter. Over the past 10 years, he has visited more than 20 countries, trying to prevent the outbreak of new major pandemics through the search for new pathogens in bat caves. More specifically, he is looking for new coronaviruses. The findings of Dashak and those like him are in the open library of all known animal viruses. From this library, scientists can use samples to predict which strains are most likely to spread to humans. This helps prevent new pandemics such as COVID-19.
“We have collected over 15,000 samples, which has led to the identification of about 500 new coronaviruses,” he said.
And one such finding was a virus discovered in a cave in China in 2013. He was probably the ancestor of COVID-19. Coronavirus studies have not received much attention in the 2003 SARS epidemic.
“They were not seen as an attractive branch of medical research,” says Singapore virologist Wong Linfa, who is developing tools for analyzing samples collected by EcoHealth Alliance. By that time, only two human coronaviruses had been identified. Both pathogens were first discovered in the 1960s. And then in 2009 the Predict project appeared. It is funded by USAID and managed by the University of California in conjunction with EcoHealth Alliance, the Smithsonian Institute, the US Wildlife Society, and Metabiota, which has developed an epidemic tracking system.
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The project was tasked with identifying and responding to new animal pathogens, including coronaviruses, before they infect humans. In the 10 years of its existence, Predict has received about $ 200 million in funding. Thanks to it, five more coronaviruses capable of infecting humans have been identified. Among them is COVID-19. Dashak says bats carry about 15,000 coronaviruses. And only a few hundred of them are currently known to science.
His organization focused on southwestern China, namely the system of limestone caves in Yunnan, known for its large population of bats.
“We first started research in China because we were looking for a source of SARS. But then we realized that there were hundreds of other dangerous coronaviruses. So we changed our focus to them,” the virus hunter explained.
CNN writes that when COVID-19 first appeared, a virologist from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Shi Zhengli, immediately compared it to a database of 500 new coronaviruses found by the EcoHealth Alliance. And that gave the result.
“The new coronavirus was the same as the one taken from the horseshoe bat in Yunnan Cave in 2013. They were 96.2% identical,” Dashak said.
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This means that the virus found 7 years ago was either the ancestor of the one that caused the pandemic, or it is a very close relative of it.
“It is very likely that it was an intermediary animal that allowed the virus to jump over humans, indicating a 3.8% difference in the genome,” the scientist added.
Knowing where the new virus came from and how it started to infect people is very important information. It can detect early-stage epidemiological threats and take measures to prevent the spread of the disease. In the case of COVID-19, knowing where the virus came from will help scientists understand how it has mutated and become dangerous to humans. This can help stop potential outbreaks in the future.
There has already been a similar precedent. In January 2019, Columbia University’s School of Public Health, in partnership with the EcoHealth Alliance, announced that they had found a bat in Liberia that was a carrier of the Zaire strain of Ebola. This virus caused an epidemic in West Africa in 2013-2016. Thus, a credible source of the epidemic was identified, killing 11,000 people.
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