With the world’s first public post of the Covid-19 genome sequence in January 2020, Eddie Holmes launched a global avalanche of scientific endeavour and cooperation as nations everywhere rushed to come to grips with a pandemic that has so far killed at least 6.5 million people. The Sydney University biologist had been working on a project in Wuhan with his Chinese colleague Yong-Zhen Zhang when a strange new disease started to take hold. By January 5, Zhang and Holmes could see it was a coronavirus with an ominous similarity to the SARS virus that swept through Asia in 2003, killing nearly 800 people. Zhang wrote to China’s health minister that day, warning the disease looked like SARS and was likely to be human transmissible, but the Chinese government had clamped down on information sharing.
Then Zhang, from Fudan University, had some biological samples sent by train to his Shanghai lab, and within about 40 hours he had sequenced the virus. China finally announced the disease was a coronavirus on January 9, and rumours began to swirl that it had already been sequenced, with one eminent scientist pointedly declaring on Twitter that if a sequence had been found it should be in the public domain.
“I thought, oh shit, that’s me,” Holmes says. “I’d helped write the paper, but I didn’t have the sequence myself; I didn’t actually have the data. I got hold of Zhang and said we need to release this now.”
Zhang was on a plane on the way to Beijing when Holmes rang and Holmes could hear the flight attendant telling him to turn off his phone. Zhang turned it off, but then called Holmes back one minute later and agreed to send him the sequence.
“I cleaned it up, wrote a little disclaimer and posted it on the free access site Virological,” Holmes says. “I had it in my possession for 52 minutes before posting it.”
Back then, in January 2020, when he fired the starting gun, neither he nor Zhang had any idea the virus would engulf the world. China’s decision to clamp down on information meant Chinese authorities waited to declare there was a risk of human transmission until January 20, three weeks later.
“The ball was definitely dropped early on,” Holmes says. “I really honestly believe we could not have stopped the outbreak, but we should have stopped the pandemic.”
He believes global scientific collaboration is essential to combat emerging diseases and prevent another world-wide pandemic. “In China, the gut reaction is to keep it quiet and not tell people what’s going on,” he says. “That’s the worst thing you can possibly do for infectious diseases. Time is of the essence. One of the key lessons I took from the pandemic is you need to share your data as quickly and openly as possible.”
A leader in the field of molecular biology and an ARC Australian Laureate Fellow, Holmes investigates the drivers of emerging zoonotic diseases which he expects will become more prevalent with climate change, increasingly massive metropolises and natural habitat loss. “Why is it that some viruses are able to jump species boundaries pretty easily?” he wants to know. “What drives this emergence? It’s fundamental research.”