It’s a suspicion that the coronavirus may have escaped, accidentally or otherwise, from a laboratory in the central Chinese city of Wuhan where the virus was first recorded. Its supporters point to the presence of a major biological research facility in the city. The Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) has been studying coronaviruses in bats for over a decade. The institute is a 40-minute drive from the Huanan wet market where the first cluster of infections emerged in Wuhan.
Zoonotic refers to diseases that are transmitted from animals to humans. Zoonotic viruses are less common than other kinds of viruses. For example, most cases of anthrax are in cattle, camels, or sheep. Other common zoonotic viruses include Hantaan virus and Nipah virus. One can say that the fact that a coronavirus has been found in bats and also in humans indicates that it was brought to humans by an animal, say its supporters. According to several experts in the field, the first known case of the HCoV-NCoV was reported on May 18, 2014. The CDC officially confirmed a cluster of human cases of acute respiratory illness. It went on to confirm that the virus had been isolated from swabs taken from respiratory samples of sick patients and had been named HCoV-NCoV.
The first patient was a 65-year-old woman, Jianguo Huang. She visited an herbal medicine store in the market, where she bought a powder used to make a herbal laxative. It was later found that she had been exposed to the first laboratory-confirmed case of the SARS-like coronavirus, the H7N9. Over the next 10 months, 784 people were reported to have been infected with the new coronavirus. On 16 April 2013, the World Health Organization (WHO) designated SARS coronavirus (H7N9) as a global health emergency. Risk to the Public: High The H7N9 coronavirus was first discovered in 2012. There have been at least four major clusters of cases since then, and although they have largely been contained to rural areas, the virus has also been found to have spread to urban areas.
What has made this virus especially dangerous is that most coronaviruses take their genes from a bat virus, but this one seems to have taken from a bird. Bird-borne coronaviruses have a narrower range of potential hosts than bats, but they are far deadlier. Another lab that has been scrutinized is the Royal Free Hospital in London. It was working on the experimental treatment that reanimated dying children infected with the rare SARS virus in 2004. SARS, which emerged in China in late 2003, is estimated to have killed almost 800 people worldwide, mainly by causing severe pneumonia. Although one Chinese nurse who treated the patients and was infected survived, the epidemic caused about $6 billion in losses to the global economy.
According to the IVI’s website, it is a state-owned research institute located in the Huanan Wet Market of Wuhan, China. This building houses the country’s “one-stop center for virus and disease research.” The IVI says it “has developed several promising technologies and been assigned by the State to handle multiple research projects focusing on emerging viral diseases in domestic and foreign bats.” Its popularity as a research base stems from the virus’ transfer to humans via bat saliva. A laboratory assistant at the IVI died of the disease in 2004, which led the country’s health ministry to investigate the role bats play in disease transmission.
It’s certainly a possibility. The new virus’s abundance in bat samples in China and more generally in other countries all over Asia gives weight to the notion. But right now, it’s too early to know if the viral strain has indeed escaped. There is also no evidence that the virus has infected humans outside Asia, although it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that someone infected with the virus did take it home with them. The only thing that’s certain is that, for now, the virus can be traced only to bats. When the global health community first started to realize something was awry in late 2013, it almost didn’t consider coronaviruses in bats as a threat to humans.
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