It may have started with a bat in a cave, but human activity set it loose.
The latest scary new virus that has captured the world’s horrified attention, caused a lockdown of 56 million people in China, disrupted travel plans around the globe and sparked a run on medical masks from Wuhan, Hubei Province, to Bryan, Texas, is known provisionally as “nCoV-2019.” It’s a clunky moniker for a lurid threat.
The name, picked by the team of Chinese scientists who isolated and identified the virus, is short for “novel coronavirus of 2019.” It reflects the fact that the virus was first recognized to have infected humans late last year — in a seafood and live-animal market in Wuhan — and that it belongs to the coronavirus family, a notorious group. The SARS epidemic of 2002-3, which infected 8,098 people worldwide, killing 774 of them, was caused by a coronavirus, and so was the MERS outbreak that began on the Arabian Peninsula in 2012 and still lingers (2,494 people infected and 858 deaths as of November).
Despite the new virus’s name, though, and as the people who christened it well know, nCoV-2019 isn’t as novel as you might think.
Something very much like it was found several years ago in a cave in Yunnan, a province roughly a thousand miles southwest of Wuhan, by a team of perspicacious researchers, who noted its existence with concern. The fast spread of nCoV-2019 — more than 4,500 confirmed cases, including at least 106 deaths, as of Tuesday morning, and the figures will have risen by the time you read this — is startling but not unforeseeable. That the virus emerged from a nonhuman animal, probably a bat, and possibly after passing through another creature, may seem spooky, yet it is utterly unsurprising to scientists who study these things.
Prof. SHI Zhengli
One such scientist is Zheng-Li Shi, of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a senior author of the draft paper (not yet peer reviewed and so far available only in preprint) that gave nCoV-2019 its identity and name. It was Ms. Shi and her collaborators who, back in 2005, showed that the SARS pathogen was a bat virus that had spilled over into people. Ms. Shi and colleagues have been tracing coronaviruses in bats since then, warning that some of them are uniquely suited to cause human pandemics.