17 Feb 2021

Eddie Holmes: de-coding Covid-19

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 3:10 pm on 17 February 2021

With hands shaking, virologist Eddie Holmes from the University of Sydney hit send on his computer on 11 January 2020 and released the genetic code of the SARS CoV 2, now known as Covid-19, to the world

That tweet would allow scientists to begin investigating the virus that has impacted the entire globe. He got the genome from a colleague in China who had been under pressure not to share information in a sequence of events that even Hollywood couldn’t imagine.

As someone at the forefront of this pandemic, Holmes joined Afternoons to share his incredible insight into the virus.

Professor Eddie Holmes with Dr Yong-Zhen Zhang

Professor Eddie Holmes with Dr Yong-Zhen Zhang Photo: supplied

He tells Jesse Mulligan that when reports first came out of a pneumonia-like illness in China and hospitals began going up overnight in China, he thought we’d be dealing with something like the first SARS outbreak.

“It spread to a few countries, it was very serious and around 800 people died in 8000 cases, but I thought it would be controllable at that stage. As soon as it started to appear in other countries, a bit later on in January, I thought this is going to be much bigger than I previously thought.

“When it spread to other countries, the fact that we were in a global pandemic situation become starkly obvious to me.”

Holmes says he first noticed, through an organisation called ProMED, the cases of pneumonia cropping up and contacted Dr Yong-Zhen Zhang in China to ask if he knew much about what was happening.

“Zhang, at that point, wasn’t working on it, he hadn’t got the sequences. The first samples arrived in his lab on January 3 and it took 40 hours for him to discover the virus. To put that in context, HIV/AIDS took two years from the description of the disease until we discovered the virus.”

Zhang had the sequence by 5 January, and it became clear to him and Holmes that the virus was closely related to first SARS virus and that it was very likely to be transmittable via human contact.

Zhang contacted the ministry of health in China that day and told them what they’d found and said people should take precautions.

“We tried to provide the key information as quickly as possible. Between Zhang and I, we thought we were probably able, in January last year, to control this quite quickly. But, by the time we were doing this, it had spread much further than anyone thought.”

The reason for that, Holmes says, it because people could spread the virus asymptomatically.

“That was a game-changer, that made it significantly harder to control.”

Holmes found himself the one revealing the genetic code to the world because of broader freedoms in the West, he says.

“I encouraged him to release it, but they’re under some pressure in China not to release because the ministry of health wants to control the information. Eventually, on the Saturday morning, he sent me the sequence and I felt a huge burden of pressure to release this because, over the week, the number of cases had been building up and there was more global interest.”

Between Holmes and colleague in Edinburgh, they wrote a statement including the genetic code and released it to the public. He says they wouldn’t have been able to get the sequence out so quickly without trust between colleagues.

“What we’re seeing now is that its become extremely politicised, which is very concerning and is unfortunately inhibiting some of the science being done. What science is about is personal relationships between people in different countries, your collaborators. Having those relationships allows data to flow.

“One of the concerns I’ve got about the next pandemic is we really have to learn the lessons from this pandemic and a key lesson is that we must share data as quickly and as openly as possible. Unfortunately, the political world we live in and the fights going on between China, the US and other countries, I’m concerned that may inhibit scientists from sharing data.

“That will just make the chances of another pandemic increase. We have to break those barriers down, establish relationships with other countries, and share data as quickly as possible.”

As for the source of the virus, Holmes believes that it did come from an animal that may have been in the Wuhan market, but it’s unclear what the source animal was or how it picked up the virus.

“That may take some years unfortunately. We’ll just have to watch this space and hope the scientists in China can keep working on it.”

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