Read: All the president’s lies about the coronavirus
Those lessons, however, were long delayed—in part because predicting the next pandemic is hard business, and support for infectious-disease preparedness was leaning elsewhere. Both SARS and its far deadlier coronavirus cousin, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), were understood to be threats. But other coronaviruses cause the common cold, and the SARS and MERS outbreaks each burned out in less than a year. When cases of those diseases fell off, public-health responders shifted to other viral emergencies such as Ebola and Zika, and coronavirus research funding dropped sharply.
That left many investigators who had been working on therapies for SARS holding the bag—even as laboratories around the world were reporting ominous findings. A number of SARS-like coronaviruses in bats, they had discovered, were only a few simple mutations away from being able to infect human cells.
Whether the world should have heeded the warnings of coronavirus specialists is, of course, a matter of hindsight. But to some experts whose business it is to hunt potential pathogens before they spill over into human populations, the many years spent not girding for a serious coronavirus outbreak were tragically—and unnecessarily—wasted.
“We were out there on the ground after SARS, working on coronaviruses with Chinese colleagues in collaboration,” said Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance, a New York–based nonprofit group that took part in a large federally funded effort, called Predict, to hunt for new pandemic viruses in wildlife in 31 countries, including China. That program was famously defunded last fall, just before the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak began.
“But we were the only group of western scientists,” Daszak added. “How can we be the only people looking for these viruses when there was such a clear and present danger?”
The coronavirus research community has always been small, friendly, and interactive. “A cul-de-sac at the end of the road of virology,” said Buchmeier, who’s been studying coronaviruses since 1980. Scientists were drawn to the field by a shared fascination: Coronaviruses had evolved strategies unlike any other in the microbial world to protect themselves from genetic errors during replication.
Coronaviruses may induce lethal infections in certain animal species, particularly cats and pigs. But their reputation in human medicine had long been one of being “wimpy viruses that cause only mild disease,” said Albert Osterhaus, founding director of the Research Center for Emerging Infections and Zoonoses in Hanover, Germany. So when SARS emerged in late 2002, there was initially “general disbelief among medical people that a coronavirus could be the basis of such a huge outbreak.”
As that epidemic spread, an influx of new researchers crowded the field. More grants were awarded, and funding started to climb. “Everyone wanted to know where the virus had come from,” said Ralph Baric, a microbiologist at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. Initial findings pointed to wild civets and raccoon dogs sold for meat and pelts, respectively, in Chinese markets. Later evidence began to implicate horseshoe bats as the original source of the infections. Some researchers whose pre-SARS careers had been grounded in basic coronavirus biology began working on therapies and vaccines—and they made steady progress for several years.