Chinese virologist Shi Zhengli, better known as 'Batwoman' for her work on bat viruses, has said that a future outbreak of coronavirus is "highly likely".
Shi is the Director for Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). Shi is at the centre of risky viral research that's under scrutiny for suspected role in possible lab-leak that could have caused the first Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan that led to the global pandemic.
In a paper published in July, Shi and her colleagues noted that there are 20 types of coronaviruses that are "highly likely" to jump into humans at some point.
Notably, there are hundreds of types of coronaviruses, but only seven have the ability to infect humans. The SARS and SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the Covid-19 disease, are among those seven that can infect humans. The SARS virus caused an epidemic in East Asia during 2002-04 and its first outbreak was reported in China. Similarly, SARS-CoV-2 was also first found in China's Wuhan, the same city where Shi and her colleagues carry out risky viral research.
What did Shi Zhengli's paper say?
In a paper published in journal Emerging Microbes & Infections, Shi Zhengli and colleagues (Shi et al) published their assessment of 40 coronaviruses and their potential to infect humans.
The paper, titled 'Assessment and sero-diagnosis for coronaviruses with risk of human spillover', says that the researchers analysed the viral traits, including population, genetic diversity, receptor and host species for 40 coronaviruses from sub-species that can infect humans.
The paper's findings say that they found 20 viruses to have a "high risk" of causing human outbreaks.
"We conducted comprehensive analysis to all known alpha and beta coronavirus species and pinpointed a list of 20 CoV species with high risk of human spillover, which could be the causative agent of a future outbreak," said Shi et al.
In their study, Shi et all classified the 40 coronaviruses into four categories:
1. The coronavirus species causing human disease that would likely be a causative agent of a future outbreak, which are 20 in number. In case. of such viruses, bats related to SARS-coronaviruses, camel related to MERS, and domestic mammals carrying other kind of viruses would be the hotspots.
2. The second category is of viruses that have shown evidence of spillover from one species to another but not to humans so far. They have jumped to species that ecologically overlapped with humans and showed characters of wide infection potential, according to the researchers.
"There is high chance for these viruses to jump over to humans following favorable ecological or virological changes in the second hosts," said Shi et al.
3. The third category included a list of high-risk, but barely studied coronaviruses species. The researchers said their spillover-potential should not be underestimated.
"We should not underestimate their risk of spillover, albeit neither the viral receptor nor their host ranges were known. It is also highly probable that new spillover events would be discovered following more surveillance targeting at these viruses," said Shi et al.
4. The fourth category comprises the presence of low-risk coronaviruses and a lot of unclassified coronaviruses not included in the study. The researchers noted that it indicated more of a knowledge boundary of coronaviruses rather than their lack of importance.
The significance of Shi Zhengli's study
The Shi Zhengli and colleagues' study is about the broader understanding of coronaviruses.
A scientist at the Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) described it as a "dictionary of coronaviruses".
While most virology studies dive deep into a specific virus to inquire about its different properties and mechanisms, this research is closer to a "dictionary of coronaviruses", said this scientist to South China Morning Post (SCMP).
He further said, "Such studies are not regarded as groundbreaking or technically challenging and thus less valued in the field, but they are important. Just like we need a mushroom textbook to avoid eating noxious mushrooms, it’s necessary to establish such tools for pathogens."
Shi Zhengli and the Covid-origin debate
Shi Zhengli is at the centre of an ongoing worldwide debate and investigations related to the origin of Covid-19 disease, caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
For years, Shi and her colleagues in association with Western scientists carried out risky viral research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) in China's Wuhan city, where the first outbreak of the virus occurred. They engaged in 'gain-of-function' (GOF) research, which refers to any research that gives new properties to an organism —such as a virus— that it does not naturally have.
However, the GOF research has come to be associated with scientific activities where transmissibility or virality or viruses or bacteria is enhanced in a lab. More formally, it is called enhanced pandemic potential pathogen research. Wuhan, where the pandemic occurred, was the global hub of such risky research and Shi was central to it.
Outlook earlier reported, "The GoF research has become central to the lab-origin hypothesis of Covid-19. It’s backed by the fact that Covid-19 emerged next door to the world’s leading coronavirus research institution that was also the global hub of coronavirus GoF research — the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). In partnership with US experts and under sponsorship of US sub-grants, WIV’s Shi Zhengli, carried out research on coronaviruses for years. With US-based EcoHealth Alliance’s Peter Daszak, Shi collected 630 types of coronaviruses during 2010-15, often travelling to remote caves and mines. She also collaborated with US-based Ralph Baric, a GoF specialist."
It has been suspected that a lab accident during such research could have caused a leak that could have led to the outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan that caused the worldwide pandemic. The suspicions are further backed by the uncovering of the series of lab accidents at the Wuhan labs in US Congress-led investigations.
"Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) patents and procurements suggest that the WIV experienced persistent biosafety problems relevant to the containment of an aerosolized respiratory virus like SARS-CoV-2...A November 12, 2019 report suggested a biosafety problem had occurred at the WIV sometime before November 2019," said a Congressional report.
The report also said, "In May 2019, the Director of the WIV BSL-4 laboratory warned that in high-containment laboratories in China, maintenance costs were neglected and part-time researchers made it 'difficult to identify and mitigate potential safety hazards in facility and equipment operation early enough'."
To be sure, there is no 'smoking gun' evidence to link Covid-19 outbreak to a lab accident, but there is no such evidence to prove a natural-origin either even after more than three years of the beginning of the pandemic. On the other hand, the governmental and media investigations have piled up evidence of risky viral research and very poor biosafety record at Wuhan, showing that the researchers were hotwiring coronaviruses around the time the outbreak occurred next door. This has led to calls for a proper investigation into potential lab-origin of Covid-19.