Selected and Edited by Rafaela Prifti/
Numerous studies show no scientific evidence that the current coronavirus SARS-Co-V-2 was created in a lab. The pathogen appears to have come from wild animals, virologists say, and there are no signs of genetic manipulation in the SARS-CoV-2 genome
Since the early days of the COVID-19 epidemic, theories have circulated about the origin of the novel coronavirus causing the disease, SARS-CoV-2. One prominent rumor is that it first escaped from a lab in Wuhan studying bat coronaviruses and then spread to the public. This theory has evolved into claims that the virus was genetically engineered to be a bioweapon. But scientists say that while there’s not enough information to pinpoint where the virus came from, there is no evidence that it was created in a lab.
The lab-escape theory had been circulating on social media and various blogs for weeks. In an article written in The Scientist by Steven Mosher, a social scientist and the president of the Population Research Institute in Front Royal, Virginia, he summarized why he believes SARS-CoV-2 may have been accidentally spread by China’s National Biosafety Laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where researchers have studied bat coronaviruses..
Mosher describes several lines of reasoning, namely, that the lab location is less than 10 miles away from the seafood market where a cluster of COVID-19 cases was first discovered. Secondly, he considers that after the 2003 SARS outbreak, the SARS-CoV virus escaped from virology labs multiple times in China. Thirdly, he describes how Chinese virologist and bioweapons expert Major General Chen Wei went to the Wuhan Institute of Virology with military scientists in January to study the new virus, which Mosher considers to be a form of damage control.
The World Health Organization updated SARS surveillance guidelines in 2004 after the lab-based outbreaks, urging labs to follow proper biosafety procedures, and China replaced the director of its Center for Disease Control and Prevention. One problem leading to a lot of apprehension and speculation about the new coronavirus is that scientists “don’t know what the actual source of the virus was,” Anthony Fehr, a Coronavirus researcher at the University of Kansas, according to The Scientist. Additionally, researchers don’t know if SARS-CoV-2 immediately started to spread in humans after a single transmission from an animal, or if it took multiple zoonotic events between an infected animal population and humans.
Despite the questions surrounding the exact source of the disease, it does appear to have originally come from wildlife, according to a team of international public health scientists who wrote a statement published in The Lancet. An analysis of SARS-CoV-2 by scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology suggests that the virus’s genome is 96 percent similar to a coronavirus found in bats.
Mosher agrees that animals were the likely origin. Transmission from an animal, with no lab experiment or genetic manipulation involved, fits best with what scientists know about how other coronaviruses have transferred to humans. In the past, these viruses have spread through wild bats that infect another type of animal—an intermediate host—that then spreads it to humans. For example, SARS-CoV, was transmitted from bats to civets to humans, while camels were an intermediate host in MERS, as stated in Quanta. The civet version of SARS-CoV was 99.8 percent similar to the one found in humans—much more closely related than the bat and human varieties of SARS-CoV-2—so researchers believe the new coronavirus also infected another type of animal on its way from bats to humans. The studies published in Nature show that scientists have not yet found “a candidate”. This ability to move in between different animal hosts is a characteristic feature of coronaviruses, according to Paul McCray, a pulmonologist at the University of Iowa, Carver College of Medicine whose lab studies coronaviruses. “It’s exactly what we’ve learned in studies of SARS in 2002 and 2003, and MERS in 2012. . . He says that for people that work with these viruses, the reoccurrence is completely unsurprising. “We don’t need to come up with farfetched theories when the genome sequences and the characteristics of these viruses support what we’re seeing.”
NO SIGNS OF ENGINEERING IN SARS-CoV-2 GENOME
In addition to the claim that a naturally evolved virus escaped from a lab by mistake, some conspiracy theories have stated that SARS-CoV-2 was genetically engineered. In fact, researchers throughout the world, including in the US and China, have conducted research involving the creation of experimentally engineered hybrid coronaviruses. There is no evidence that SARS-CoV-2 was genetically engineered, says Paraskevis, whose genomic analysis of the new virus was reported as a preprint in January.
RNA viruses, which include coronaviruses, “accumulate mutations at a rate one million times faster than human DNA [does]. . . . It gives them the ability to survive against an immune response,” Paraskevis says. Although the novel coronavirus does have some genetic differences to other known viruses due to mutations, “there’s no evidence that this is the result of a human experiment,” the scientist finds. In addition, the engineered virus would show additional genetic material in its genome. The Chinese researchers published the most important piece of information online. The Scientist article states that the fact that researchers all over the world had access to that genomic sequence made a lot of early studies possible.
Many unknowns still remain about SARS-CoV-2, and researchers worldwide are trying to uncover as much as they can about the virus. In times of crises, there is a preponderance for conspiracy theories and a tendency for finger pointing. The best defense is to get information from reliable and trusted sources. During pandemics, each one should be responsible in slowing the spread of virus and stopping the private speculation by sharing scientific knowledge publicly.