We should have had vaccine already: Australian expert who cracked virus code

The Australian professor who cracked the genetic code of the virus that causes COVID-19 said the world should have been working on a coronavirus vaccine for years but governments had become "complacent" about bat coronaviruses after SARS was defeated.

Edward Holmes, a researcher based at the University of Sydney who is considered among the world's leading experts on the virus's genetics, evolution and origin, said a pandemic had been inevitable but governments refused to take the threat seriously.

Professor Edward Holmes, of the University of Sydney, who cracked the genetic code of the virus that causes COVID-19, says the world should have been working on a coronavirus vaccine for years.

"It is no surprise another coronavirus emerged in humans. We have been monitoring these viruses. They've been jumping species boundaries," Professor Holmes said. "We knew this was going to happen.

"Bats have been carrying these viruses for millennia. It's not them that's changed, it's us – the way we interact with them."

After narrowly avoiding disaster with SARS in the early 2000s and MERS in the past decade, governments should have cracked down on wet markets and illegal wildlife trading, and started making broad-based coronavirus vaccines and drugs in readiness for the next coronavirus to emerge, he said.

Professor Holmes, the first to publish a genetic sequence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, said coronaviruses seem to be uniquely able to jump species for reasons scientists do not understand.

SARS-CoV-2 is the third coronavirus from bats to jump into humans in the past 20 years, after SARS and MERS, which killed hundreds.

Ebola, while not a coronavirus, is also believed to have come from bats.

SARS-CoV-2 is far more infectious than MERS and SARS and has already claimed the lives of more than 27,000 patients.

"It is blindingly obvious that we, as humans, have to change the way we interact with the animal world. We have to cut our exposure. Those markets have to go. The illegal trade in wildlife has to end.

"The whole world is now set up for a pandemic; we live in mega cities, there is transport. It's an accident waiting to happen, and it happened."

Michelle Baker, a world-leading bat immunity researcher based at the CSIRO, agreed that scientists had been waiting for the next coronavirus outbreak and she expected they would become more frequent.

"I wasn't expecting it to be this bad. But I'm not surprised it's a coronavirus at all," she said.

When Dr Baker started in the field a decade ago, she "could review everything we knew about bat immunology in an afternoon. There were no resources, no reagents.

"We have been completely complacent. Not nearly enough research has been done.

"It gets really difficult to get funding when there is not an outbreak. People feel a sense of security. They don't feel it's relevant any more."

"We were just waiting for the next outbreak. I'm not surprised at all. And I hope we can learn from this one. Because they are probably going to become more frequent."

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