Flashback: Scientists Warned That Bats And Chinese Wet Markets Could Foster The Next Pandemic — In 2013


Virginia Kruta Associate Editor
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Scientists warned that Chinese wet markets like the one in Wuhan could be a breeding ground for the next SARS-like pandemic — in 2013.

“Researchers say they have for the first time isolated a closely related virus from bats in China that can infect human cells,” Kai Kupferschmidt wrote in October of 2013. (RELATED: NBC News Correspondent Says Coronavirus ‘Is A Bat Virus, Not A China Virus’)

The warning came just over a decade after 2002’s deadly SARS outbreak, and Kupferschmidt cited a number of researchers and scientists who saw the potential for those viruses to not only infect humans but to spread globally once they had done so.

Coronaviruses such as SARS and MERS had long been linked to bats, although in most cases, scientists believed that there was an intermediate step or host animal that was infected before the virus made the jump to humans.

But the data collected in 2013 suggested that an intermediate host animal might not actually be necessary.

For more than a year, scientists from China, Australia, and the United States collected anal swabs or fecal samples from horseshoe bats at a cave in Kunming, in the south of China. They found coronavirus RNA in 27 of 117 sampled animals. Among the viruses were two new strains of coronavirus that resemble the SARS strain more closely than those previously identified in bats, especially in the part of the genome coding for the important spike protein. The scientists also managed to isolate live virus from one of the animals. In experiments, reported online today in Nature, they showed that the virus infected pig and bat kidney cells, and perhaps more important, cells lining the human lung.

Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance in New York City, went so far at the time as to recommend that people take steps to eliminate some contact with bats, particularly with regard to the wet markets where bats are often sold as a delicacy. “I think people should stop hunting bats and stop eating bats,” he said.

Daszak revisited the topic Friday, saying that while the outbreak had certainly been expected, its “capacity to spread” had not been anticipated — nor had the politicized response.