Not all heroes wear capes
December 30th 2019
“Stop what you’re doing and deal with it right now!”
She said this in Mandarin but there’s no way for me to Anglicize it without absolutely massacring the language.
Dr. Shi Zengli, from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, was talking to the Wuhan CDC after examining some curious samples from a patient with atypical pneumonia. After the horrors of the SARS epidemic, in 2002-03, that led to 8,000 confirmed cases and left 10% of those dead, the stakes were incredibly high. (WHO, 2004).
In a Robin Cook novel worthy conspiracy theory, The Wuhan Institute of Virology was the supposed source of a ‘bioterrorist leak.’ Virologists who’ve parsed the genome claim that there is substantial evidence that the virus is brand new and came from nature. (Lancet 2020)
Dr Shi is popularly known as ‘batwoman’ for her extensive work in virology that is based in the southern regions of China. Her work takes her to caves that house thousands of bats and it’s in these superhero inspiring mammals that the greatest risk of corona viruses jumping to humans from animals resides.
Since 2004, Shi and other ‘virus-hunters’ go out seeking bat caves (no pun intended) and put a net at the mouth to trap the nocturnal creatures when they venture out at night. The researchers collect blood and saliva samples, as well as urine samples and fecal swabs. Job satisfaction at its finest.
‘Blame it on the Bat’ – A quote from every Batman movie ever
Biologists have long forewarned of infectious diseases spreading ever more frequently from animals to humans as population density increases and the human-wildlife divide thins out. (Qie 2017)
Bats have been associated with a number of outbreaks. The current outbreak that began in Wuhan is the sixth by a bat-borne virus in the past 30 years — Hendra in 1994, Nipah in 1998, SARS in 2002, MERS in 2012, and Ebola in 2014. However, our increased encroachment into their territory is the problem rather than the animals themselves.
Dr Shi has been conducting cave expeditions since 2004 to identify and study the viruses that reside in bats. These expeditions were part of the effort to catch the culprit in the SARS outbreak and it’s reported that wildlife traders in Guangdong first caught the SARS coronavirus from civets. These are mongoose like cats that shit out what coffee connoisseurs exaltedly refer to as kopi luwak (for anyone who has been to SE Asia.) FYI there is still an embargo on the cats in the US, no shit-coffee for you!
The constant mixing of viruses in the furry residents of these caves has led to incredible genetic diversity among the coronaviruses and are central to the research that Shengli is doing. In experiments, they isolated a number of coronaviruses. Some harmless, but dozens belonged to the same group as SARS and could infect human lung cells in-vitro.
Enter SARS-CoV2 (stage name: COVID-19)
The ‘Crown’ Prince –
The genomic sequence of SARS-CoV-2 is 96% identical to that of the SARS coronavirus. The researchers identified it in horseshoe bats in Yunnan and it’s certain that these are the natural reservoir. The new virus appears fairly stable and 80% of infected individuals appear to have mild or no symptoms, which implies that the pathogen might have been around for weeks or even months before the first severe cases appeared in the Chinese hospitals.
There are a number of hypotheses surrounding the transfer to humans from our furry flying friends. In a Nature publication by Shi and colleagues it may have been a direct bat-to-human transmission (Shi 2013) whereas another, more recent preprint, points a finger at Malayan pangolins. (Tsun-Yuk 2020).
The term Coronavirus is based on a circular protein pattern seen on the virion under the electronic microscope and it’s only fitting that the virus currently looks like it’s ruling the world.
The virus currently has an R0 of 2.2 (Cascella et al 2020) which means an infected person transmits the disease to 2.2 other individuals on average. A number of studies have reported infectious even before symptoms appears. Viruses tend to have the innate ability to mutate their RNA, but based on over 500 genetic sequences submitted to GISAID (the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data), the virus has not drifted to significant strain differences and changes in the sequence are minimal. (Link)
Through the looking glass…
At the risk of getting caught up in ‘Carroll-ian’ puns, we are living in a wonderland, despite the despair. Compared to previous decades and centuries, almost every metric by which we define quality of life has been on the uptick. (Gapminder)
That being said, it’s essential to be cognizant that our exponential rate of progress has come at a cost. Among the more mainstream topics like global warming and the ‘desolation of smog’, zoonotic diseases is one we often overlook. In a study that analyzed approximately 500 human infectious diseases from the past century, they found that the emergence of new pathogens tended to happen in places where a dense population has been terraforming the landscape by building roads, mines, demolishing forests and spreading farmland. (link) China is by no means the only nidus with other major emerging economies like India, Nigeria and Brazil, also at risk.
In the meanwhile we have COVID19 taking a leaf out of Pitbull’s book at going Mr. Worldwide (#dale), but it has slowed down in China and South Korea with aggressive containment and mitigation interventions. In an age of nationalism and polarization, Governments, agencies and corporations are co-operating at a level hitherto unseen. There are 33 clinical trials currently underway for therapeutic agents and vaccines. (Clinicaltrials.gov) The virus genome has been sequenced and is now open-source for data scientists to crunch through for insights. (Wired)
The end of the pandemic rather than the human race, I hope, is nigh! With some of the leading scientific minds in Medicine and Virology, like Dr Zengli, on the job there should be more hope than despair! Looking at the pandemic through a gender equity lens, it seems only fitting in the current global scenario that when crisis strikes, we don’t call on Batman, it’s bat-woman’s time to shine!