The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Smithsonian team discovered a new coronavirus. The story behind that effort shows what it takes to get ahead of potential pandemics.

A scientist with the Global Health Program holds a wrinkle-lipped bat in Myanmar. (Danny Schmidt/Smithsonian)

Before Marc Valitutto could begin hunting for a deadly virus, he had to find a snake hook for a monk.

As a wildlife veterinarian, Valitutto hadn’t received training on how to build trust with people. But shortly after he arrived in Myanmar to look for viruses capable of jumping from animals to humans — such as Zika, Ebola and the coronavirus that is responsible for the current outbreak — he realized he was going to have to learn on the job.

He was going to have to prove to locals who had no reason to trust his presence and every reason to fear it that he was there to help.

He was going to have to find that snake hook because that monk needed it to handle the venomous reptiles in the caves he protected, and Valitutto needed that monk to let him test bats in those caves.

“To even start the work, it took a year and a half of just building that trust,” recalls Valitutto, who works for the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Global Health Program.

It took listening to the priorities and fears of local residents. He says some of their early concerns included: “What are our motives? Are we going to respect their religion, their culture? If we find disease, is it going to destroy their tourism industry or destroy their agricultural industry?”

For so many of us, the emergence of the coronavirus in the Wuhan area of China feels like a sudden threat, a conjured contagion we didn’t know to fear until it was here, in front of our facemask-less faces.

But for the past decade, a team of wildlife experts from the Smithsonian has been working with other organizations across the world to find these zoonotic diseases to reduce their pandemic potential.

The work Valitutto and others did in Myanmar is just one piece of that massive effort, but it is an important one because it led to the discovery of a new coronavirus in bats. That coronavirus — unlike the one that has killed more than 800 people in China, including a doctor in recent days — is not believed to pose a health threat to humans at the moment.

Threat level aside, the story behind the discovery is worth unraveling because it shows the painstaking planning, the on-the-ground labor and the widespread collaboration that is needed to get ahead of these viruses.

It shows how connected we all are to one another and to the wildlife around us.

Suzan Murray, director of the Smithsonian’s Global Health Program and former chief veterinarian of the zoo, says it was once normal for people to talk about the environment and human health separately. Now, she says, there is a “holistic approach.” There is recognition that human health is tied to the health of the environment and the wildlife in it.

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“I always knew I would be a wildlife veterinarian,” Murray says. “Since the age of 5, I knew I was going to work with endangered species. But I never thought I would have the chance to affect human lives, so that is exciting and really rewarding.”

Exactly how rewarding though? Is the work that is happening unseen behind the scientific curtain going to keep us safe? I ask Murray as we talk one recent afternoon.

“I think we’re vastly more prepared than we were 10 years ago,” she says. “The people behind the curtain know more than they used to.”

The Smithsonian’s Myanmar project and another in Kenya were part of a larger effort called PREDICT, which involved five organizations working in 30 countries for the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Emerging Pandemic Threats program. The lead organization was the One Health Institute at the University of California at Davis.

Samples collected and tested in Myanmar were sent to the institute, which determined that that coronavirus hadn’t yet been detected anywhere else in the world. It is not believed to have the ability to cause serious health problems.

“We don’t think it poses a big threat to the human population, at least not now,” Murray says. “But you never know what’s going to happen in the future, and at least we have that information.”

Getting that information wasn’t quick or easy. It took years. It required setting up laboratories in Myanmar, establishing partnerships with local government agencies and buying protective gear for humans and GPS collars for bats.

It required not only gaining the trust of local residents, but also hiring and training some to do the testing.

Without their help, Valitutto says, he couldn’t have navigated sweltering caves that offered little ventilation and housed poisonous snakes and other dangerous animals.

“We were going into caves you can’t breathe in,” he says. The caves were often hotter inside than outside, and he along with a team of about 20 locals had to step into them while wearing body suits, goggles and masks. Once inside, they often found themselves standing in bat feces as it fell on them.

The team also worked in the night and in torrential rain.

When outbreaks happen, there is a tendency to blame the country where it started for not doing more, Valitutto says. But the work done for PREDICT shows that communities in countries across the world have been working, and working hard, toward the same goal of protecting people.

“They’re working alongside us hand-in-hand to prevent these from spreading,” he says. But it’s work that requires ongoing support and funding. “The work that we’re doing is a lifelong thing. It’s a forever thing.”

Valitutto moved to Myanmar five years ago to start the project and remained there until it wrapped up in September. An official meeting to bring PREDICT to a close is scheduled to occur in the District in March. In the past 10 years, Murray says, PREDICT teams have found more than 1,200 new mammalian viruses, including 160 coronaviruses.

To find that single Myanmar virus, Valitutto estimates his team collected as many as 1,000 bats and took more than 10,000 samples from saliva and feces. They also went beyond disease detection. They studied human behavior in the region to understand the ways in which the virus might jump.

Many of the caves serve as holy places, and custom calls for people to take off their shoes and socks, leaving their feet exposed, Valitutto says. Bats in that region, similar to China, are also eaten and sold in wild animal markets.

Experts say the outbreak that has infected tens of thousands of people probably resulted from a wild animal market in Wuhan. Bats were quickly identified as a likely culprit. More recently, a new possible suspect emerged — the pangolin, a critically endangered animal that is often killed for its meat and scales.

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The pangolin is what initially pulled Valitutto into the wildlife field. It is the most trafficked mammal in the world, and he has spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to save it.

During the SARS epidemic in the early 2000s, he says, some pangolins tested positive for the coronavirus. At that time, he says, it hit him that maybe the best way to help the pangolin is by helping people. Maybe people would stop eating them if they knew they could carry a deadly disease.

“I came into my career with a focus on wildlife, and not so much an interest in working with humans,” he says. “Now, I realize cannot save wildlife unless I’m saving people, too.”

He is currently working with pangolins and giant pandas for the Smithsonian.

For that work, he has now settled in a new country: China.

“Far from Wuhan,” he tells me when we Skype one recent evening.

He is in Chengdu, which is about 700 miles from the outbreak’s epicenter.

He has used that distance to reassure his relatives who have called more frequently lately. He has also told them about the precautions the country is taking to keep the virus contained. He is required to wear a mask in public and have his temperature checked three times a day.

Other Americans have fled that region, but Valitutto does not have plans yet to return to the District.

“I have my general fears, but I know the measures that China has taken, and I know how to protect myself,” he says. “I’m not entirely too worried about contracting it.”

For him, unlike most people, the threat does not feel new. He has spent years knowing it existed.

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