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U.K. Has a Plan for a New 'Pandemic Radar' System

Homing in on sources.

Researchers in the world of emerging infections are absolutely sure about this: COVID should have been found much sooner.

Credit: Daniel Grizelj/Getty Images

About four years ago, seven infants and toddlers and a 37-year-old woman were admitted to a hospital in Sibu, a coastal town on the island of Borneo in Malaysia. Records don't show how many of them arrived together; they came from villages in different parts of the province, lived in different types of housing, and were of at least four different ethnicities. They all were experiencing something like pneumonia, a normal winter respiratory infection. But their symptoms—caused by an array of viruses—concealed a secret. They were also carrying a coronavirus that held a genetic signature indicating it had previously infected cats and dogs.

We know this because swabs of pulmonary secretions taken from the eight Malaysians during their illness were stored as part of a screening project, and then analyzed last year by a Duke University team seeking to validate a new test. What they found, and described two weeks ago in Clinical Infectious Diseases, may show a novel coronavirus in the process of leaping from the animal world into people, as the virus that causes Covid probably did in 2019.

That new virus might have been an accidental bystander in the airways of those Malaysian patients, whose swabs variously also turned up evidence of adenoviruses, rhinoviruses or flu. Or it might have been a cause of their disease. It's too soon to know. (To be clear: It wasn't Covid. Canine coronaviruses and the viral cause of Covid belong to separate genera of the coronavirus family.)

Nevertheless, researchers in the world of emerging infections are absolutely sure about this: It should have been found much sooner. Covid is supposed to have demonstrated that we need faster detection. That a possible novel pathogen could lie concealed in a lab freezer since as early as 2017 shows how much work we still have to do.

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