KSJ alum reports on how China’s “Bat Woman” hunted down viruses from SARS to the new Coronavirus
Wuhan-based virologist Shi Zhengli has identified dozens of deadly SARS-like viruses in bat caves, and she warns there are more out there
Shi Zhengli releases a fruit bat after taking blood and swab samples from it in 2004. Credit: Wuhan Institute of Virology
EXCERPT | SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN | MARCH 11, 2020
"The mysterious patient samples arrived at Wuhan Institute of Virology at 7 P.M. on December 30, 2019. Moments later, Shi Zhengli’s cell phone rang. It was her boss, the institute’s director. The Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention had detected a novel coronavirus in two hospital patients with atypical pneumonia, and it wanted Shi’s renowned laboratory to investigate.
"If the finding was confirmed, the new pathogen could pose a serious public health threat—because it belonged to the same family of bat-borne viruses as the one that caused severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), a disease that plagued 8,100 people and killed nearly 800 of them between 2002 and 2003. 'Drop whatever you are doing and deal with it now,' she recalls the director saying.
"Shi—a virologist who is often called China’s 'bat woman' by her colleagues because of her virus-hunting expeditions in bat caves over the past 16 years—walked out of the conference she was attending in Shanghai and hopped on the next train back to Wuhan. 'I wondered if [the municipal health authority] got it wrong,' she says.
"'I had never expected this kind of thing to happen in Wuhan, in central China.' Her studies had shown that the southern, subtropical areas of Guangdong, Guangxi and Yunnan have the greatest risk of coronaviruses jumping to humans from animals—particularly bats, a known reservoir for many viruses. If coronaviruses were the culprit, she remembers thinking, 'could they have come from our lab?'"