'The next virus attack will be worse', says award-winning evolutionary virologist

Updated: 22 November, 2020 07:48 IST | Prutha Bhosle | Mumbai

The man who first sequenced the genome of SARS-CoV-2 and was told to shut up, in an exclusive interview with mid-day, says "stupidity" has cost us dear and that free flow of scientific data between countries is our only hope

Customers shop at a wet market in Shanghai on February 13, when China's official death toll and infection numbers from the Coronavirus pandemic spiked dramatically. Pic/AFP
Customers shop at a wet market in Shanghai on February 13, when China's official death toll and infection numbers from the Coronavirus pandemic spiked dramatically. Pic/AFP

A few years ago, a local health officer took me to the seafood market in Wuhan [Huanan Seafood Market, China, where SARS-CoV-2 was first detected]. I saw cats, raccoons, dogs and rodents; people were interacting closely with these live animals. The officer told me how dangerous the place is. When in January this year, it was declared the place of the COVID-19 outbreak. I was not surprised," recalls Professor Edward Holmes, an evolutionary biologist and virologist.

A National Health and Medical Research Council Australia Fellow and professor at the University of Sydney since 2012, Holmes is distinguished for his work on the emergence and evolution of viruses. He has used genomic and phylogenetic approaches to reveal the major mechanisms of virus evolution and determined the genetic and epidemiological processes that explain how viruses jump species boundaries and spread in new hosts. His work has revealed the origin, evolution and molecular epidemiology of important human pathogens, including influenza, HIV and dengue, and enabled more accurate assessments of what types of virus are most likely to emerge in human populations and whether they will evolve human-to-human transmission.

Edward Holmes
Edward Holmes

This year, 55-year-old Holmes was recognised by the Premier of the New South Wales, Gladys Berejiklian, and awarded the top honour of Scientist of the Year in recognition for his research into emerging pathogens, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans. "I am delighted, but this was truly unexpected," he beams.

In January this year, he became the first person to publicly release the genome sequence of SARS-CoV-2, enabling the rapid development of diagnostic tests. "I first heard about the virus on the ProMED website, where they release data about outbreaks from across the world. On December 31, 2019, they published a report on four cases of pneumonia in Wuhan; they said the cases were associated with a fish market there. Since I have collaborated with researchers there, I called them to check what was going on. By then, they had already got the first samples of the patients," Holmes remembers, adding how his colleagues in Shanghai soon completed sequencing the genome. "By January 5, we had the data ready with us. On the same day, we told the ministry of health in China that we have a new virus on our hands. It was very much like the SARS virus of 2003; it was probably going to be respiratory and that the people in China need to take precautions. But the authorities placed an embargo on publishing any data on the outbreak."

Holmes says he thought the decision was stupid. On January 10, he published the genome sequence so that the world could see it. Two weeks after his post went online, Germany used his data to make the RT-PCR test.

"It also allowed companies like Moderna to develop the first vaccine. It was a really important moment," he adds.

There was considerable discussion on the origin of the causative virus. There were many conspiracy theories doing the rounds. Holmes published a paper titled, The Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2, in the Nature Medicine journal. "The idea was to debunk the pervading conspiracy theory that the virus was engineered in or escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan. I received death threats and insults on social media. I am past that now, but what hurt me was when they said I faked the data."

His paper read: "The closest known relative of SARS-CoV-2 is a bat virus named RaTG13, which was kept at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. RaTG13 was sampled from a different province of China (Yunnan) to where COVID-19 first appeared. The level of genome sequence divergence between SARS-CoV-2 and RaTG13 is equivalent to an average of 50 years of evolutionary change. Hence, SARS-CoV-2 was not derived from RaTG13."

This is the fifth new Coronavirus that the researchers have discovered in humans in the last 20 years. "And yet, no lessons have been learnt. After SARS, some research was initiated to find a vaccine, but then it was stopped. Governments said the virus is gone, and research was not required anymore. We kept warning them that there will be more outbreaks in the future. No one listened," he says. Another outbreak could happen next year.

The reason why the UK and the US are dramatically affected by the pandemic today is because their politicians constantly looked away, says Holmes bluntly. "Boris [Johnson] wanted to talk about Brexit and [Donald] Trump is anti-science. And another outbreak could happen next year. We need better cooperation between governments in sharing data and manufacturing antivirals and vaccines for all types of Coronavirus. This will take a lot of intellectual power, but the next one [virus attack] is going to be worse. And we need to be prepared."

The date that Holmes informed China's health ministry about a new virus

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First Published: 22 November, 2020 07:49 IST

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