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Bats and maybe some scaly anteaters likely caused COVID-19 pandemic and they could do it again

An article published Wednesday in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene by eminent scientists suggests naturally infected bats and scaly anteaters called pangolins in Asia and Southeast Asia likely caused the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The specific mechanism for how it emerged in humans remains unknown,” say the authors. “Nevertheless, a large body of virology, epidemiologic, veterinary and ecologic data establishes that the new virus, SARS-CoV-2, evolved directory or indirectly from a B-coronavirus in sarbecovirus (SARS-like virus) group that naturally infect bats and pangolins in Asia and Southeast Asia,” says the abstract.

“Scientists have warned for decades that such sarbecoviruses are poised to emerge, again and again, identified risk factors, and argued for enhanced pandemic prevention and control efforts. Unfortunately, few such preventive actions were taken resulting in the latest coronavirus emergence detected in late 2019 which quickly spread pandemically. The risk of similar coronavirus outbreaks in the future remains high. In addition to controlling the COVID-19 pandemic, we must undertake vigorous scientific, public health, and societal actions, including significantly increased funding for basic and applied research addressing disease emergence, to prevent this tragic history from repeating itself,” it continues.

The first SARS outbreak in 2002-04 was also deadly but also disappeared fairly quickly and the new Journal article says a 2007 warning from scientists who studied what happened went largely unheeded. Like COVID-19, the first SARS outbreak was known for causing severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus. SARS was first identified in Foshan, Guangdong, China, in November 2002. It infected more than 8,000 people in 29 different countries and territories, causing at least 774 deaths. The World Health Organization declared the first SARS pandemic on July 5, 2003, with the last cases reported in 2004.

In 2007, scientists who studied the first SARS pandemic said there was a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats that was like a time bomb. “The possibility of the re-emergence of SARS and other novel viruses, … should not be ignored,” they warned.

Scientists from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID), the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH), and the Boston University School of Medicine are among the authors, who call in the article for “vigorous scientific, public health, and societal actions, including significantly increased funding for basic and applied research addressing disease emergence, to prevent this tragic history from repeating itself.” Among the authors are:

“As we face the mounting deaths and societal upheavals of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must not lose sight of how this pandemic began, how and why we missed the warning signs and what we can do to prevent it from happening again –and again,” they wrote.

The article’s discussion of animal reservoirs of coronavirus centers on bats. It says “bats of some species, including rhinolophids, so-roost with bats of other species, facilitating viral exchanges and enhanced viral evolution associated with genetic sequences similar to SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-3.” It says investigators have mapped global hotspot for where potential infections might emerge.

More than 100 species of bats exist in China where the two SARS strains emerged. “Many scientists have proposed aggressive monitoring of known hotspots to try to predict and prevent viral emergence that might impact human health, including early warning of host-switching events” the article continues.

“Unfortunately, outside of some members of the scientific community, there has been little interest and no sense of urgency,” it added. “In 2020, we learned, tragically, what 12 years of unheeded warnings have led to: a bat-derived sarbecovis from the very same SARS-like bat virus group that had been warned about by multiple voices for over a decade — emerged and proceeded to cause the COVID-19 pandemic that now seeps the globe.”