After SARS in 2003 ‘we dropped the ball’ says leading virologist
Professor Edward Holmes – who helped map the COVID-19 virus genome – issues a call to action to limit the impact of this coronavirus and prepare for any future outbreaks.
Professor Edward Holmes is a world-expert on the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 in humans. He was part of the team that first mapped its genome in January.
In a wide-ranging interview (see video below) with the Australian Academy of Science, the evolutionary virologist at the University of Sydney says a coronavirus pandemic was something that “was clearly going to happen at some point”.
And he says future coronavirus outbreaks are all but inevitable and we must be prepared for them.
“The way humans live today is just perfect for pandemics to occur,” he says.
In the wake of the 2003 SARS outbreak, which was caused by a coronavirus, he says we remained complacent and unprepared for what has now happened: “We did drop the ball there.”
But he remains optimistic. “Hopefully this will be the wake-up call for the world to change the way we live,” he says.
To do this, Professor Holmes says we need to:
- Reduce our interaction with wildlife;
- Increase surveillance of and research into animal populations that carry coronaviruses;
- Close markets selling such animals;
- Stamp out the illegal wildlife trade;
- Develop and stockpile antivirals that act broadly on coronaviruses.
In the interview he puts paid to dangerous conspiracy theories that this virus was manufactured. His work with colleagues in China, published in Nature Medicine, showed that SARS-CoV-2 is a natural virus.
“When [people] see something so unusual lots of strange theories appear. But there is nothing unusual about this virus. All its components are absolutely mapped and they’re all-natural ingredients,” he says.
“I’m certain it is a natural coronavirus that’s come from an animal in a natural setting. There’s nothing in there at all that is a signature of laboratory manipulation. I think we can safely put those conspiracy theories to bed.”
Professor Holmes said we should now be working on broadly protective antivirals to prevent future disease outbreaks caused by other coronaviruses.
“Obviously it’s very hard to do,” he says. “We’ve spent years [trying to make] a universal flu vaccine and we haven’t quite got there yet, but we should have at least started the research program [for coronaviruses].
“After SARS we didn’t do that and there were very few people working on coronaviruses and very, very few people, if any, working on coronavirus vaccines – and that was a mistake. We did drop the ball there. Going forward, you can certainly expect there’ll be a huge effort to make these broadly protective vaccines and antivirals to stop it ever happening again.”
Professor Holmes says: “What we suspect happened is that someone in a market situation [probably in Wuhan] would have been handling an animal and that animal would have had a respiratory secretion with a virus in that.
“Like in humans, it would be a nasal pharyngeal virus or respiratory virus. It doesn’t take much imagination [to consider] that the animal excretes that virus in respiratory fluid, the person then touches their hands, they touch their nose, and then you have an outbreak. That’s just the model; we don’t really know exactly what happened and we may never know.”
As well as preparing for any future coronavirus outbreaks, Professor Holmes hopes action now will reduce the spread of the disease caused by the current virus.
“I’m hoping testing, vigilance and isolation may be enough to keep the levels very, very low until a vaccine comes online hopefully sometime next year.”
Professor Edward Holmes is an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow, a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and a Fellow of the Royal Society in London.
At the University of Sydney he is a member of the Charles Perkins Centre and the Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity. He holds a joint position with the School of Life and Environmental Sciences and the Sydney Medical School.