In a mine shaft in southern China, bats were found years ago with coronaviruses closest to the virus that is now in its grip and causing covid-19. In the mine there may be the key to more information about the occurrence of such viruses. But despite the Chinese commitment to give full scope to research into the source of corona, a visit to the mine turns out to be a sensitive undertaking.
Our correspondent tried, but he wasn‘t thanked. Check out his reportage for HetCCEit Journal:
The mine in question is in the South China province of Yunnan. In the spring of 2012, six people get sick after cleaning up the abandoned copper mine. They have fever, cough and breathing problems. An unknown pneumonia, it is said. Three of them are dying. In the weeks before, they had come into contact with bats and their feces. A new virus, or a reaction to poisonous Yunnanese mushrooms?
A team of ‘batwoman‘ Shi Zhengli, a renowned researcher at the Institute of Virology in Wuhan, in any case identifies several coronaviruses among the bats in the mine. One of them, turned out last year, is more than 96 percent equivalent to the coronavirus that causes covid-19. About the specific origin of the virus says that still little and retesting the samples for the new coronavirus were negative. But it underlines what Shi shows in numerous studies afterwards: coronaviruses thrive well in the bat population and, with or without the intervention of another animal, can infect humans.
“People from outside are not allowed to come here”
Through the heart of Yunnan, to the Babian River, we drive past tea and flower fields towards the old mine shaft. About ten kilometers before arrival at the said location we encounter a checkpoint. “People from outside are not allowed to pass here because of the epidemic,” says one of the men blocking the passage with a bamboo trunk and a pylon. A combination of a green code on the Chinese corona app and a negative corontest gives a free job in most parts of the country. Not here.
In follow-up studies of batwoman Shi, a handful of people are testing positive for antibodies to a SARS-related coronavirus a few hundred miles away. None of them could remember being ill recently. However, they all sometimes asked to see bats around their homes.
Hundreds of coronaviruses were found in two nearby caves in the following years. The discovery proved to be a breakthrough, and is seen as the most probable explanation for the source of the SARS virus, which later passed over to humans via civet cats.
People there say they never see bats again. “It used to be”, says the owner of a tobacco shop. At least one of the two caves is closed, says the man guarding a checkpoint near the Yanzi cave.
Unknowns stop us if we want to talk to locals around the cave. “You can not, because of the epidemic,” screams one of the dozen to men that appears shortly after. Several following cars do not lose sight of us anymore, until we disappear through the toll booth on the highway.
Samples handed in
Cases of corona have hardly been in the region, tell residents of Tongguan, where the mine shaft is part of. According to official government figures, the entire province of Yunnan, which has 48 million inhabitants, recorded only 231 corona reports.
That the mine is a sensitive location, news agency AP reported earlier. A research team that recently managed to collect samples from the mine shaft would have had to hand them in. All scientific research on the origin of the virus must be approved before publication by the authorities in Beijing, it was evident from documents held by the press agency. In a note to the Chinese RIVM, employees were ordered not to share data with external parties.
Spokesperson Wang Wenbin of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Wednesday that China wants to give all the space to investigate the source of corona. “China will continue to cooperate with the WTO in an open, transparent and responsible manner.”
Currently, a WHO mission is on its way in Wuhan; among the researchers is Marion Koopmans of the Erasmus MC.
Several attempts to talk to researchers from the Virological Institute in Wuhan (WIV) came to nothing. In September, the institute stated that the laboratory was not accessible to journalists because of “maintenance and the spicy research efforts”. On the last attempt, in January, a spokesman said he was too busy with “year-end reports and other matters”. TheThe institute’s high-security lab has long been the subject of rumors of a possible leak, including in Washington. Evidence has never been provided.