COVID-19 was not made in a Chinese lab, researchers conclude

The origin could still be a Chinese lab, however.

There is a long-standing theory that the COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) pandemic we are facing right now is because of Chinese scientists in a lab in Wuhan. The myth is that the coronavirus was artificially made, possibly with the help of the Chinese government, as a test for a bioweapon. However, a new analysis of the SARS-CoV-2 (novel coronavirus) by researchers has revealed that the virus was not made or modified in a lab. The study was published in the journal Nature Medicine.

Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.

Coronavirus is actually a family of viruses, that have long been known to humans and has caused many outbreaks over the years. An example of this is the SARS coronavirus outbreak that started in 2002. The researchers compared the genome of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) with other coronaviruses that are known to infect humans and cause severe diseases, such as the SARS and MERS coronaviruses. The genome was also compared to coronaviruses that just cause mild symptoms, such as HKU1, NL63, OC43, and 229E.

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Three reasons why the novel coronavirus is not genetically engineered

The coronavirus contains multiple spike proteins that protrude from its surface. These spikes are used by the virus to latch onto the outer walls of host cells before entering them. The researchers examined the genetic sequences responsible for these protein spikes, especially two key components of the spikes: the “hook” and the “opening.” The researchers found that the “hook” of the spikes were very efficient at attaching to human cells, and show evidence of evolution. They concluded that such high efficiency is only possible due to natural selection, and such efficiency cannot be artificially formed in a lab.

Another key reason that led the researchers to their conclusion is the differences between the SARS coronavirus and the SARS-CoV-2. After studying the viruses closely, researchers found that the genetic code of the viruses differ in multiple ways. If COVID-19 was genetically engineered or mutated virus-caused pandemic, computer simulations would have suggested mutations that would allow SARS-CoV-2 to better bind to human cells. However, they found that mutations in SARS-CoV-2 don’t help the virus in binding to human cells. Therefore, it can’t be that the virus was formed in a lab.

The most important reason is the origins of the novel coronavirus. Studies have uncovered that SARS-CoV-2 closely resembles coronaviruses that have been found in bats and pangolins. These coronaviruses have not been known to cause harm to humans, and have only been found in animals. If the novel coronavirus was genetically engineered, scientists would not have chosen a virus that is not known to affect humans to model the novel coronavirus. “If someone were seeking to engineer a new coronavirus as a pathogen, they would have constructed it from the backbone of a virus known to cause illness,” according to a statement from Scripps

Where did the novel coronavirus come from then?

According to the researchers, there are mainly two possible scenarios as to how the COVID-19 pandemic came to existence.

First evolution, then infection

One possibility is that the virus passed on to humans from an animal – in this case, bats. This is similar to other coronavirus outbreaks in the past, with MERS originating from camels and SARS originating from civets. Scientists believe that the virus was passed to an intermediate, possibly a pangolin, which then passed it on to a human. In this possibility, the virus would have evolved to allow itself to latch onto human cells before the actual animal-to-human transmission occurred. Basically, the virus entered humans in a ready-to-infect, pathogenic form.

This possibility is referred to in the study as “natural selection in an animal host before zoonotic transfer.” The study notes, “As many early cases of COVID-19 were linked to the Huanan market in Wuhan1,2, it is possible that an animal source was present at this location. Given the similarity of SARS-CoV-2 to bat SARS-CoV-like coronaviruses2, it is likely that bats serve as reservoir hosts for its progenitor. Although RaTG13, sampled from a Rhinolophus affinis bat1, is ~96% identical overall to SARS-CoV-2, its spike diverges in the RBD, which suggests that it may not bind efficiently to human ACE27.

First infection, then evolution

Another possibility follows the virus developing the pathogenic ability of infecting humans after the animal-to-human jump occurred. This would imply it would have taken time for the pathogenic features of the virus to develop in order to be able to spread amongst humans on a larger scale. Basically, the virus first entered humans, then developed the pathogenic properties required to infect human cells efficiently.

This possibility is referred to in the study as “natural selection in humans following zoonotic transfer.” The study notes, “It is possible that a progenitor of SARS-CoV-2 jumped into humans, acquiring the genomic features described above through adaptation during undetected human-to-human transmission. Once acquired, these adaptations would enable the pandemic to take off and produce a sufficiently large cluster of cases to trigger the surveillance system that detected it1,2.

Read Also: Coronaviruses also exist in dogs, cats, bats, and whales

A natural virus, but from a lab?

The researchers say it is important to explore a possibility where the natural mutation of the virus in a laboratory. There are many labs around the world that study SARS-like coronaviruses that could have inadvertently released the strain leading to SARS-CoV-2. The research concludes that the virus was not engineered, but naturally selected. It does not rule out the possibility that the virus could have originated from a lab, possibly with negative intentions. There have even been instances where SARS-CoV strains have escaped from laboratories.

The study says, “Basic research involving passage of bat SARS-CoV-like coronaviruses in cell culture and/or animal models has been ongoing for many years in biosafety level 2 laboratories across the world27, and there are documented instances of laboratory escapes of SARS-CoV28. In theory, it is possible that SARS-CoV-2 acquired RBD mutations during adaptation to passage in cell culture, as has been observed in studies of SARS-CoV11.”

A laboratory release explanation is still unlikely

The researchers finally conclude in their study, that the third possibility is still very unlikely. Evidence points towards “the finding of SARS-CoV-like coronaviruses from pangolins with nearly identical RBDs” to be the most probable explanation, explaining how SARS-CoV-2 would have acquired these changes via mutation or recombination. The researchers also note that it is currently not possible to prove or disprove any conclusions, due to the limited knowledge we have on coronaviruses in general.

More scientific data could swing the balance of evidence to favor one hypothesis over another.

Either way, these studies would help other researchers better understand the virus. Understanding the genetic origin of SARS-CoV-2 is important to find efficient ways of fighting this pandemic. The researchers also say that the chances for future outbreaks are lower if the virus origin was entering the human population first, and then evolving pathogenic properties. However, if the virus entered humans in pathogenic form, it finds no difficulty in spreading faster and could be more difficult to control. Even apart from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to keep surveillance on various viruses and coronaviruses – irrespective of whether they can infect humans or not. One day they might, and we will be woefully underprepared again.

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