Museums join front line in future pandemic fight

DNA from museum exhibits is to be used in research to identify ways in which the world can avoid another Coronavirus pandemic.

Scientists from the UK’s Natural History Museum are taking part in a project that aims to provide insight into the origins of COVID-19 and mitigate the risk of future pandemics.

Although it is not certain which species passed on the pathogen that causes COVID-19 in humans, genome sequences of the virus from the beginning of the pandemic are 96% identical to that of a bat coronavirus.

The museum’s mammal curators and members of the digitisation team are contributing data on three bat families to a COVID-19 Chiropteran knowledge base. This data will be released on an open platform and made available to researchers all over the world who are studying the origins of the virus.

Data will primarily be gathered on horseshoe bats (Rhinolophidae) and their closely related families Old World leaf-nosed bats (Hipposideridae) and trident bats (Rhinonycteridae). The project involves 9 major European collections and was initiated by the CETAF COVID-19 taskforce.

The museum said the pandemic has highlighted the lack of access to bat data needed for further research into COVID-19 and illustrated the importance of digitising natural history collections.

Helen Hardy is Digital Programme Manager at the Museum. She says, “Data is key. This is what makes digitising the collections and making the data freely available so important, as more access to data means more research can be done globally.”

Shed added data can help us plan for future outbreaks. “Specimens held in natural history collections represent a huge, and often untapped, resource that can contribute to our understanding, from figuring out where and when specific species lived, to identifying viruses in historic specimens.”

The Museum added collections provide a snapshot of time at any given place. For example, if a bat was collected on a specific expedition, by looking at the other species collected at the same time, or the descriptions of the field in collectors’ notebooks, a richer picture of the ecosystem emerges. This can help researchers link events, like the outbreak of COVID-19, to specific environmental situations meaning we can predict when they might happen again.

Approximately 75% of all emerging infections are zoonotic; they are transmitted from animals to humans. Human activity such as deforestation and intensive farming have brought us in closer proximity to animals, like bats, that carry diseases and create the perfect conditions for diseases to jump from wildlife to humans in what is known as a spillover event.

“Unless we study and protect nature, we will experience more frequent spillover events and more frequent pandemics in the future,” the museum added. “The collections might be finite, but the potential uses of the collections are infinite. As technology and scientific techniques evolve, so too do the uses of our collections.”

Roberto Portela Miguez is Senior Curator in Charge of Mammals at the Museum, explained: “Not long ago we thought we couldn’t get any DNA from museum specimens, but recent advances in technology have now made this possible. We shouldn’t stop ourselves imagining what could be learnt from natural history collections.”