Deep in the valley of the fertile mountains of southern China lies the entrance to Wanling Cave. The cave was once inhabited by bats that are believed to be intermediaries for the coronavirus.
This area is of scientific interest because it may hold clues to the origin of the virus that has killed more than 1.7 million people worldwide. Access is very difficult; closely guarded and sealed, even for scientists and journalists.
Recently, a group of bat researchers managed to take samples there but the samples were then confiscated by local authorities. Coronavirus specialists were also not allowed to speak to the media, and two teams of Associated Press journalists were followed by plainclothes police, who blocked roads and access to the site.
There are Buddhist prayer ribbons of red and yellow thread hanging from the stalactites. Residents of nearby Manhaguo village said the Wanling Cave has been used as a place for meditation by a Buddhist monk from Thailand.
This kind of contact between bats and people who meditate hunt, or mine in caves, concerns scientists. The genetic code for the human coronavirus is very similar to the bat coronavirus, and many researchers suspect that COVID-19 jumped into humans directly from a bat or intermediary animal.
“There is a bat somewhere with 99.9 percent of the virus similar to the coronavirus,” said Linfa Wang of Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore.
Currently, the caves being surveyed by scientists are closely monitored by the authorities. The Wuhan Virology Institute and China’s CDC are both studying the bat coronavirus from this cave.
Although most scientists believe COVID-19 originated in nature, other unsubstantiated theories claim that the disease or a close relative may have been brought to Wuhan and leaked accidentally.
Wuhan Institute of Virology bat expert Shi Zhengli has repeatedly denied the theory but Chinese authorities have not allowed foreign scientists to investigate, including in Wanling Cave.
image credit Cnbc