NEW DELHI: Shi Zhengli, the renowned Chinese virologist acclaimed for her extensive research on viruses originating from animals, has issued a warning regarding the possibility of a future emergence of a new coronavirus. Often referred to as “batwoman” due to her work with bat-borne viruses, Shi has underscored the importance of global preparedness to effectively respond to such outbreaks, drawing upon the lessons learned from the devastating Covid-19 pandemic.
Shi currently serves as the Director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Her extensive experience in the field of coronaviruses spans over two decades.
According to a report from the South China Morning Post (SCMP), Shi and her fellow researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) published a paper in July 2023. In this paper, they assessed the risk of human spillover for 40 different coronavirus species, categorizing half of them as “highly risky.” Among these, six have previously been identified as causing diseases in humans, while evidence suggests that an additional three have led to diseases in humans or infected other animal species. The study emphasizes the likelihood of future disease outbreaks, including the potential for another coronavirus-related disease.
The research relied on an analysis of various viral characteristics, including factors such as population, genetic diversity, host species, and previous instances of zoonotic transmission (infections jumping from animals to humans). Additionally, the researchers identified significant hosts for these pathogens, encompassing natural hosts like bats and rodents, as well as possible intermediate hosts such as camels, civets, pigs, or pangolins. They also developed efficient and sensitive testing tools for actively monitoring these high-risk viruses.
The SCMP report notes that Shi’s paper gained attention on Chinese social media, coinciding with a U.S. federal agency’s decision to prohibit funding for WIV over the next decade. Some U.S. officials have accused WIV of conducting risky gain-of-function experiments involving bat coronaviruses and have suggested the possibility of the Covid-19 pandemic originating from a Chinese lab. However, U.S. intelligence documents from June stated that there was no conclusive evidence supporting the lab leak hypothesis.
Shi’s warning comes at a time when the world continues to grapple with the Covid-19 pandemic, which has claimed the lives of more than 4.5 million people and infected over 230 million individuals worldwide.