In January, Shi Zhengli led one of the first scientific teams that isolated SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that went on to ravage the world. The virus was new to science, but Shi could see where it had come from: bats. Sixteen years of virus hunting had prepared her for that epiphany.
In 2003, another corona-virus unleashed the SARS epidemic. To find its origin, Shi and her colleagues traveled to caves in southwestern China. There, they found bats infected with SARS-like viruses. Over the subsequent years, Shi—a virologist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology—has gone spelunking into more caves and found many more bat coronaviruses. In 2015, Shi and her colleagues warned that it was just a matter of time before another bat coronavirus spilled over the species barrier and wreaked havoc. Five years later, SARS-CoV-2 proved her right.
The Trump Administration has attacked Shi’s institute, insinuating that it is responsible for the pandemic. The charge is not just baseless but dangerous. Shi’s scientific accomplishments and foresight are exactly what we need if we want to stop more coronaviruses from devastating humanity in the years to come.
Zimmer is the author of A Planet of Viruses