Shi Zhengli was at a conference when she received the phone call she had been dreading her entire career.
Within hours, she was on a train and speeding back to Wuhan after she was told that two patients had been admitted to hospital with an unusual strain of pneumonia.
The illness turned out to be what were believed to be the first known cases of Covid-19, the coronavirus that has now claimed the lives of more than a million people around the world.
It was December 30 last year and within just days the world-renowned virologist had discovered the genetic code for Covid-19.
However, these cases may not have been the first as a report claims a 55-year-old man from Hubei province in China was actually ‘patient zero’ on November 17 – a year ago today.
The South China Post reported that the unnamed man was the first person to display symptoms of the deadly pandemic, with five cases emerging each day for the next few weeks.
Mentions of ‘coronavirus’, ‘breathlessness’ and ‘SARS’ also spiked on WeChat, the Chinese message service in the weeks leading up to December 8 when the county’s government initially told the World Health Organisation about the infection.
It would be January 21 before authorities confirmed coronavirus could be transmitted between humans.
For Zhengli the phone call that has changed the lives of billions of people around the world was one she had feared for many years.
She had been studying coronaviruses for 16 years and was a world expert on the infections.
For two months the 56-year-old barely left her lab as she worked round the clock to discover everything possible about the new virus.
She survived on nothing but instant noodles as she and her team worked to not only identify the virus but come up with the key to a cure.
Her work was picked up by scientists around the world and now the first vaccines have been found to be at least 90 percent effective against Covid-19.
There are hopes a Covid vaccination, developed by Pfizer and said to be 90 percent effective, could be started to be administered across Britain next month.
Although a second vaccine, Moderna, which hasbeen found to be 94.5 percent effective in US clinical trials, is not expected to be available in the UK until next spring at the earliest.
The coronavirus pandemic did not come as a total shock to Zhengli, who went on her first expedition to examine bats back in 2004.
It was on her very first scientific trip to examine if bats could be the source of coronaviruses that Zhengli was tasked with finding out if civets, which are similar to mongoose, had been the source of the SARS epidemic.
Found in the subtropical parts of Asia and Africa she travelled to caves near Nanning, where the work was extremely hard and often frustrating.
For eight months Zhengli had no breakthroughs until a nearby lab gave her and her team a diagnostic kit for testing antibodies produced by people with SARS.
With “nothing to lose” the team used the tests and the results were instant.
Antibodies against SARS were found in three species of horseshoe bats, which meant they were one step closer to finding the genetic code.
After testing a huge number of sites, the team then narrowed their search down to the outskirts of Kunming, the capital of Yunnan and for the next five years they targeted their research on that area.
They found hundreds of strains of coronaviruses but thankfully just dozens were similar to SARS and could infect human lungs.
They were also immune to vaccines and cures that had proved successful against other forms of the virus.
In one cave, the scientists found what seemed to be the epicentre for SARS – but this came with an added risk.
It meant millions of bats were mixing and creating increasing opportunities for the virus to evolve and for new strains to emerge.
They also found that the virus could spread to those who weren’t directly handling the animals.
People living in a nearby village had seen bats flying around. Six people had suffered from symptoms similar to SARS.
And Zhengli believes that as people increasingly move into areas that were previously havens for wildlife, the risk increases that new strains of coronavirus will be unleashed on humanity.
This coupled with the movement of wildlife and livestock around the world, along with increased long-haul travel, creates conditions perfect for the potential spread of a pandemic – something Zhengli has long feared.
A year ago, Zhengli and her team published a study warning of the potential of a bat-borne pandemic. Little did they know just 12 months later their doomsday predictions would come true.
And while she says that the Wuhan outbreak was a “wake up call” she fears there could be another pandemic in the future.
Zhengli said: “What we have uncovered is just the tip of an iceberg. The mission must go on. Bat-borne coronaviruses will cause more outbreaks and we must find them before they find us.”
She now wants more to be done around the world to ensure scientists work together in a bid to stop another pandemic.
Zhengli said: “Over the past 20 years, coronaviruses have been disrupting and impacting human lives and economies.
“I would like to make an appeal to the international community to strengthen international cooperation on research into the origins of emerging viruses. I hope scientists around the world can stand together and work together.
“The purpose of the search for the origin of a virus is to prevent the recurrence of similar outbreaks which will harm human society, and in this way, we can respond more effectively when an outbreak happens.”