A Chinese survey and database of pathogenic viruses that infect animals and sometimes jump to humans was authorised last year, but a researcher says it has been delayed by red tape.
The project could potentially identify future public health threats like
and was approved by the Ministry of Science and Technology last year, before the global pandemic began.
It is being led by virologist and evolutionary biologist Zhang Yongzhen, from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, according to a researcher involved in the application who will lead part of the project and requested anonymity.
Zhang, also a researcher with the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Centre at Fudan University, was the first scientist to publish the genome sequence of the novel coronavirus after it was detected in Wuhan in December.
– a day before it was made public by officially designated Chinese laboratories.
The investigation is to focus on viruses of natural-focal infectious diseases, which are transmitted among animal hosts and vectors but can sometimes be passed on to humans. These include Lyme disease, caused by bacteria carried by ticks, and Ebola, which is thought to be passed from bats to humans and spread by direct contact with the blood or body fluids of someone who is infected.
Zhang plans to lead more than four dozen researchers from nine Chinese institutions on the project. They will spend four years systematically screening viral pathogens carried by wild animals such as bats, rats, birds and insect vectors like ticks and mosquitoes across China, according to the researcher.
Zhang responded to a call for applications from the ministry in July last year to conduct the national survey, which involves studying “important” new pathogenic viruses and establishing a national database of “strategic viral pathogen resources”.
He got the go-ahead, but the survey – originally due to start in February – was interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, according to the researcher.
In May, the ministry issued a document authorising the project to start and funds to be allocated once it was approved by the Chinese CDC and the National Health Commission.
But according to the researcher, that final approval has yet to be given and the project is described as “halted” on the ministry’s website.
He said the research team had replied to three separate inquiries from the Chinese CDC about the project but the document had not yet been officially approved.
The Chinese CDC did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
According to the researcher, the team plans to collect samples from wild animals and insect vectors across the country to screen for viruses and monitor for mutations, the evolutionary relationship between unknown and known viruses, distribution characteristics and pathogenic risks to humans.
“All these outbreaks in recent years – Ebola, Zika, Nipah virus, severe acute respiratory syndrome [Sars] and Middle East respiratory syndrome [Mers] – occurred in relation to human activities,” he said. “Urbanisation and human activities have an impact on these diseases passing from animals to humans and there will be more such outbreaks [in the future].
“This project is significant because it can potentially identify a threat like the coronavirus and beyond – we can develop an alert system to prepare, predict and prevent such zoonotic diseases,” he said, referring to diseases that jump from animals to humans.
The ministry expects the investigation to result in a report on the pathogenic lineage, genetic characteristics and geographical distribution of animals that carry viruses – like bats, mice, birds, ticks, and mosquitoes – in China. The researchers will also be expected to obtain the genome sequences for more than 100 new viruses and strains and isolate and identify 50 “important” virus pathogens.
The 10 most important new viruses and strains will be analysed for their pathogenic characteristics, and a biosecurity risk assessment will be done for five of them.
“Covid-19 can’t be the last new zoonotic infectious disease. Do we want to be caught off guard again, or face an outbreak of a new infectious disease unprepared? That’s why this project is so important and needs to be started quickly,” the researcher said. “We need to know about the virus before the outbreak – even if we can’t avoid it, we’ll be better prepared.”