Another Covid outbreak ‘highly likely’: China’s 'batwoman'

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Beijing, September 25 (IANS) Another Covid outbreak, akin to the recent deadly pandemic, may be “highly likely”, warned Chinese virologist Shi Zhengli, best known as 'batwoman' in a new study.

In the study, Shi and colleagues from the Wuhan Institute of Virology evaluated the human spillover risk of 40 coronavirus species.

The findings published in the English-language journal Emerging Microbes & Infections in July, reported 20 ‘highly risky’ coronavirus species.

“If a coronavirus caused diseases to emerge before, there is a high chance it will cause future outbreaks,” she was quoted as saying by the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Of the 40 species, six are already known to have caused diseases that infected humans, while there is evidence that a further three caused disease or infected other animal species.

“It is almost certain that there will be future disease emergence and it is highly likely a (coronavirus) disease again,” the study warned.

The study was based on an analysis of viral traits, including population, genetic diversity, host species and any previous history of zoonosis – diseases that jump from animals to humans, the SCMP reported.

Shi and her colleagues also identified important hosts of the pathogen, which include natural hosts such as bats and rodents, or possible intermediate hosts including camels, civets, pigs or pangolin.

The study comes as the former chair of the UK Vaccine Taskforce Kate Bingham in a new book warned of a next pandemic that could come from a million unknown viruses and kill about 50 million people like the Spanish Flu.

According to the experts, thousands of different viruses could evolve to spark a pandemic. There is also a risk that viruses could jump between species and "mutate dramatically".

"So far, scientists are aware of 25 virus families, each of them comprising hundreds or thousands of different viruses, any of which could evolve to cause a pandemic," Bingham wrote in the book.

In May, the World Health Organisation (WHO) also warned of the threat of an “inevitable” next pandemic “Disease X, raising concerns across the globe.

Disease X was first coined in 2018 by the WHO, a year before the Covid-19 pandemic struck the world. It is among the WHO’s “Blue print list priority diseases” that could cause the next deadly pandemic and includes Ebola, SARS and Zika.

“Disease X represents the knowledge that a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease,” the WHO said. The Blueprint list highlights infectious diseases for which we lack medical countermeasures.  

Some public health experts believe the next Disease X will be zoonotic, meaning it will originate in wild or domestic animals, then spill over to infect humans, as Ebola, HIV/AIDS and Covid-19.