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Scientists from the 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.
Museum 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. It is being funded by SYNTHESYS+ Virtual Access.
Data driven research
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.'
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 Collection is finite, but its uses are infinite
Museum 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 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. 'Not long ago we thought we couldn't get any DNA from museum specimens, but recent advances in technology have now made this possible,' says Roberto. 'We shouldn't stop ourselves imagining what could be learnt from natural history collections.’
In a new display opening on 21 May, Our Broken Planet: How We Got Here and Ways to Fix It takes a fascinating look through the Museum’s collection. Each object has been selected by one of the Museum’s scientists and tells a different story about human impact on the planet. From bats to bees, the world’s largest butterfly to a 3m Black Marlin, the display is an exploration of the power of humans and the resilience of nature. The programme looks at the context of the current pandemic and how our scientists are finding solutions for nature, from nature.
Notes to editors
Natural History Museum Media
Images available to download here.
The Our Broken Planet display is available for a media preview on 18 May, for further details please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Natural History Museum is both a world-leading science research centre and the most-visited natural history museum in Europe. With a vision of a future in which both people and the planet thrive, it is uniquely positioned to be a powerful champion for balancing humanity’s needs with those of the natural world.
It is custodian of one of the world’s most important scientific collections comprising over 80 million specimens. The scale of this collection enables researchers from all over the world to document how species have and continue to respond to environmental changes - which is vital in helping predict what might happen in the future and informing future policies and plans to help the planet.
The Museum’s 300 scientists continue to represent one of the largest groups in the world studying and enabling research into every aspect of the natural world. Their science is contributing critical data to help the global fight to save the future of the planet from the major threats of climate change and biodiversity loss through to finding solutions such as the sustainable extraction of natural resources.
The Museum uses its enormous global reach and influence to meet its mission to create advocates for the planet - to inform, inspire and empower everyone to make a difference for nature. We welcome over five million visitors each year; our digital output reaches hundreds of thousands of people in over 200 countries each month and our touring exhibitions have been seen by around 30 million people in the last 10 years.