Known as one of China’s best virologists, Shi Zhengli has warned that there is a high possibility of another coronavirus to appear in the future.
Shi Zenghli, who gained her nickname “batwoman” because of her research into viruses that leap from animals, especially bats, to humans, stated in a paper that the world must be prepared for another disease, just like Covid-19.
“If a coronavirus caused diseases to emerge before, there is a high chance it will cause future outbreaks,” she said in a study paper written with her colleagues.
Shi’s team from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, evaluated the human spillover risk of 40 coronavirus species and related half of them as “highly risky.”
The research was based on an analysis of various viral traits, including population, genetic diversity, host species, and any previous history of zoonosis – diseases that jump from animals to humans.
Of these 40, six are known to have already caused diseases that have infected humans. “It is almost certain that there will be future disease emergence and it is highly likely a [coronavirus] disease again,” the study warned.
Although the study was published in the English-language journal Emerging Microbes & Infections in July, it only gained attention on Chinese social media this month.
This may be partly because the study was not written in Chinese, but a scientist from the country’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said it also reflected a desire to move on from the subject after the abrupt reversal of China’s zero-Covid policies.
“Sometimes in private conversations, when talking with other public health scholars, we have noticed that intentionally or unintentionally, Chinese authorities are downplaying Covid-19, and some cities have stopped releasing infection data,” the scientist (who wanted to be anonymous) told the South Morning China Post.
The Wuhan team has also identified quick and sensitive testing tools that could be used to actively monitor these high-risk viruses.
They have also identified important hosts of the pathogen, which include natural hosts such as bats and rodents, or possible intermediate hosts including camels, civets, pigs and pangolins.
Despite the importance of this research, many Chinese virologists have been reluctant to comment on Shi’s latest findings due to the heightened sensitivities around her work.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology has been under scrutiny, with some US politicians promoting the theory that Covid-19 originated from an accidental leak from the lab.
However, this theory remains highly controversial, with many scientists believing the disease more likely originated from a virus in animals, possibly bats, that then leapt to humans via an unidentified host.
Declassified US intelligence documents published in June have stated there is no evidence to support the lab leak theory but it cannot be ruled out.