Jon Cohen in Science:
When Alice Hughes downloaded a preprint from the server Research Square in September 2021, she could hardly believe her eyes. The study described a massive effort to survey bat viruses in China, in search of clues to the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. A team of 21 researchers from the country’s leading academic institutions had trapped more than 17,000 bats, from the subtropical south to the frigid northeast, and tested them for relatives of SARS-CoV-2.
The number they found: zero.
The authors acknowledged this was a surprising result. But they concluded relatives of SARS-CoV-2 are “extremely rare” in China and suggested that to pinpoint the pandemic’s roots, “extensive” bat surveys should take place abroad, in the Indochina Peninsula.
“I don’t believe it for a second,” says Hughes, a conservation biologist who’s now at Hong Kong University. Between May 2019 and November 2020, she had done her own survey of 342 bats in the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, a branch of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Yunnan province where she worked at the time. As her team reported in Cell in June 2021, it found four viruses related to SARS-CoV-2 in the garden, which is about three times the size of New York City’s Central Park.