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article imageEssential Science: Coronavirus was not genetically engineered

By Tim Sandle     Mar 23, 2020 in Science
Time to take those conspiracy theories and put them into a box labeled ‘fake moon landings’. The novel coronavirus sweeping the world was not genetically engineered and it is of natural origin, as new research shows.
A study conducted by the Scripps Research Institute conclusively demonstrates that the virus causing the global pandemic: SARS-CoV-2 and the disease called COVID-19 is of natural origin.
READ MORE: Coronavirus update: Round up of positive news stories
This is based on an analysis of genome sequence data relating to both SARS-CoV-2 and similar coronaviruses. This analysis reveal there is no evidence whatsoever that the virus was bioengineered in a laboratory or has undergone any other artificial genetic modification.
A 3-D image of the MERS virus.
A 3-D image of the MERS virus.
Scinceside (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Conspiracy theories alight
Unfortunately, senior figures based in both China and the U.S. have been posting ‘fake news’ about either the origins of the coronavirus or inferring that the virus is some kind of biological warfare weapon.
Take, for example, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian has repeatedly claimed that the U.S. military brought coronavirus to Wuhan, albeit without providing any evidence (as ABC News has reported). In addition to this, China’s ambassador to South Africa has tweeted that the virus was not necessarily “made in China”. Again, no scientific evidence has been provided to support this assertion.
Before the coronavirus outbreak Venezuelans were already suffering from a lack of necessary medical ...
Before the coronavirus outbreak Venezuelans were already suffering from a lack of necessary medical supplies due to a severe economic crisis
Federico Parra, AFP
In the U.S., many far-right political movements have attempted to use the coronavirus pandemic as a means to propagate various theories relating to societal collapse, biblical rapture, or even the beginning of a race war (The Guardian presents a round-up of these movements and the ideas they are professing).
US President Donald Trump speaks to reporters during a press briefing about the Coronavirus (COVID-1...
US President Donald Trump speaks to reporters during a press briefing about the Coronavirus (COVID-19) alongside members of the Coronavirus Task Force
More ‘mainstream’ politicians have not helped, either. This includes Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) who has tweeted about the coronavirus being bioengineered by Chinese scientists pseudo-science theory. Things in the U.S. have not been helped by President Trump. Not only has Trump been exaggerating news about imminent vaccines and antiviral cures, President Trump's use of the term ‘Chines virus’ is not helping with coordinated global efforts to tackle the virus.
A related idea circulating was that the coronavirus was being studied in a laboratory in Wuhan (after being isolated from animals) and it then “escaped” or “leaked” because of poor biosafety protocols. Again, this was without any evidence.
The worst coronavirus conspiracy theories are found on Facebook, lurking in groups and then being re-posted multiple time. One fake theory even states that coronavirus has been caused by radiation from 5G masts. Wired has a good analysis of the worst of the Facebook misinformation.
New research about the coronavirus
In determining the origin of the novel coronavirus and the generic similarity to other related viruses, the researchers studied samples of the virus responsible for the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in China; and the 2012 virus isolated in Saudi Arabia, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).
MERS virus as seen on electron microscopy.
MERS virus as seen on electron microscopy.
CDC / Wikimedia commons
The researchers studied the genetic template for SARS-CoV-2, looking for spike proteins (these are armatures on the outside of the virus). The virus uses the armatures to lock on to and penetrate the outer walls of cells. Of particular interest was two key features of the spike protein: the receptor-binding domain (RBD), which is a specialist type of grappling hook that latches onto host cells; and the cleavage site, which enables the coronavirus to unlock and enter host cells.
Further analysis showed that the RBD portion has evolved so that it can target something specific to human cells called ACE2. This is a receptor that regulates blood pressure. This enabled the researchers to conclude the development with the coronavirus is the consequence of natural selection and not the result of genetic engineering.
Further evidence arises from the analysis of the overall molecular structure of the virus. Here the SARS-CoV-2 backbone differs significantly from previous coronaviruses known to infect humans. Instead, the molecular structure more closely resembles viruses found in bats and pangolins. Had the virus been artificially created, the developers would have used a virus already known to infect humans and modified this in order to increase the infectivity or severity.
According to lead researcher, Dr. Kristian Andersen: “By comparing the available genome sequence data for known coronavirus strains, we can firmly determine that SARS-CoV-2 originated through natural processes.”
Research paper
The research has been published in the journal Nature Medicine. The research paper is titled “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2.”
Essential Science
This article is part of Digital Journal's regular Essential Science columns. Each week Tim Sandle explores a topical and important scientific issue.
Hong Kong is using tech to track the coronavirus
Hong Kong is using tech to track the coronavirus
Last week we continued with discussions around the novel coronavirus, considering how the novel coronavirus penetrates cells, with a view to developing a mechanism to block the viral activity. Here a cellular enzyme that is necessary for viral entry into lung cells appears promising.
The week before we looked at whether fish-oil can assist with heart attack prevention (something that may occur due to the intake of omega-3 fatty acids). While there remains a division between health experts on this subject, some new research looks promising.
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