Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

AM’s Chief Scientist on Covid-19 host ID

Australian Museum chief scientist Professor Kris Helgen and museum director Kim McKay with specimens from the US Typhus Commission research project. Credit: James Brickwood.

Heath Gilmore, Identify host animal carrying COVID-19 or risk future outbreaks, says top scientist, The Sydney Morning Herald, 27 July 2020

The Australian Museum’s chief scientist says COVID-19 could become a modern plague repeatedly sweeping the globe because the original host species remains unidentified.

Professor Kristofer Helgen said a co-ordinated research project worldwide was needed to find the answers, similar to efforts used to protect allied troops from deadly typhus fever during World War II and combat Lassa fever outbreaks in Africa since the 1960s.

His claim came as Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds flew to Washington yesterday for major talks with their US counterparts. They are seeking to reach agreement on a joint effort to prevent the next case of a virus jumping from animals to humans via wild-animal wet markets and other areas.

Professor Helgen, appointed the Australian Museum’s chief scientist in June, said the focus on the Wuhan wet market in China was understandable, and regulating these places was an important priority for global public health. However, it was likely there were other kinds of hotspots of potential interaction between wild animals where diseases can jump between species.

He said pinpointing the species of animal should be a research priority, together with medical treatment and a vaccine. Otherwise there was a risk the virus would become a “modern plague repeatedly sweeping the globe”.

Australian Museum director Kim McKay said their collections, including whole animals, skins and DNA samples, were untapped reservoirs of information for identifying viruses. “The collections hold the key to help us understand where and how a virus starts and mutates,” she said.

Professor Helgen said the hunt for the COVID-19 host animal could be done by utilising these vast collections globally with fieldwork by researchers. Once the host animal was found, authorities could devise strategies to contain the disease as well as identify other potentially deadly pathogens.

“Now that this virus has spread in 2019 and 2020, we need to know more about it. Why did it emerge now? Is this something we can expect to happen again and again?” Professor Helgen said.

Many are looking at historic pandemics such as the bubonic plague, which is considered the deadliest in recorded history, with three major outbreaks, the worst in the 14th century, and was still occurring last century.

The tumultuous events of the bubonic plague are tied to a particular kind of bacteria found on a particular kind of flea that lives on the bodies of particular kinds of rodents. The previously deadly disease is less dangerous because it can be treated with antibiotics.

Professor Helgen said a researcher working on fleas in the great collections of the Natural History Museum in London in the early 20th century made the painstaking comparisons that identified the source of the Black Plague.

Similar work was carried out fighting Lassa fever in Africa during the 1960s and 1970s which used museum collections to identify a small mouse in western Africa as the disease carrier. Australian Museum researchers also worked with the US Typhus Commission to identify the species of rats and mites carrying the deadly scrub typhus killing allied troops during World War II.

The focus is on zoonotic diseases or zoonoses which are illnesses or infections that humans catch from animals, usually vertebrates. AIDS, smallpox and measles are thought to originally have been zoonotic.

In addition to direct transmission from one species to another, zoonoses can be transmitted via an intermediate species, called a vector. The coronavirus, SARS-CoV-1, which caused the outbreaks of severe respiratory illness in 2002–2004, originated in bats but infected humans via civets as an intermediate vector.

Similarly, the coronavirus pandemic, caused by SARS-CoV-2, is believed to have come from bats but reached humans possibly though contact with pangolins.

“COVID-19 is just one of perhaps an almost infinite number of pathogens that exist in nature, and it’s very hard to predict which one of those are important to human health, but getting out ahead of it is what we need to do,” Professor Helgen said.

Council of Australasian Museum Directors, c/o Ms Daryl Karp, Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House PO Box 3934 Manuka, Australian Capital Territory 2603 Australia, © CAMD 2020
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