Scientists have analysed the entirety of the coronavirus’s genomic sequence to assess bizarre conspiracy theories COVID-19 was engineered in a laboratory. The coronavirus outbreak first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan last December.
Since then coronavirus has triggered an international emergency, infecting more than 200,000 people and leading to more than 7,900 deaths.
(The Nature Medicine paper) is crucially important to bring an evidence-based view to the rumours that have been circulating
Dr Josie Golding
International blame around the COVID-19 pandemic has predictably triggered conspiracy theories about its origin.
Without evidence Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, suggested coronavirus was brought to Wuhan by the US army.
While he may have been insincerely provocative in response to American officials describing the outbreak as the Wuhan virus, he received thousands of retweets.
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Rumours linking coronavirus to the Wuhan Institute of Virology – based on geographic proximity, and without any endorsement from qualified epidemiologists – have also circulated.
Shortly after the epidemic began, Chinese scientists sequenced the genome of the virus and made the data publicly available for researchers worldwide.
Shadowy conspiracy theorists online have since then questioned even the integrity of these scientists and medical professionals.
These have caused scientists from around the world to sign a joint letter of support for them and their work, published in esteemed medical journal The Lancet.
The value of the genomic sequence could prove vital for those developing a vaccine, but it also contains key details revealing how the virus evolved.
New analysis by researchers at the Scripps Research Institute discovered coronavirus has proved so infectious because it developed a near-perfect mechanism to attach to human cells.
This mechanism is so sophisticated in its adaptions scientists claim coronavirus must have naturally evolved instead of being genetically engineered.
Dr Josie Golding, the epidemics lead at the Wellcome Trust in the UK, described the paper as “crucially important to bring an evidence-based view to the rumours that have been circulating about the origins of the virus causing COVID-19”.
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She added: “They conclude that the virus is the product of natural evolution, ending any speculation about deliberate genetic engineering,” Dr Golding added.
One of the most effective parts of coronavirus are its spike proteins, molecules on the outside of the virus which it uses to grab hold of and then penetrate the outer walls of human and animal cells.
There are two key features in the novel coronavirus’ spike proteins which make its evolution a certainty.
The first is the receptor-binding domain (RBD), described as “a kind of grappling hook that grips on to host cells”, while the second is known as the cleavage site, “a molecular can opener that allows the virus to crack open and enter host cells”.
The researchers revealed if researchers were to design a virus to harm humans, coronavirus would be constructed from the backbone of a virus already known to cause illness.
However, the coronavirus backbone is radically different from those which are already known to affect humans and more similar to viruses found in bats and pangolins.
Dr Kristian Andersen, corresponding author on the paper, said: “These two features of the virus, the mutations in the RBD portion of the spike protein and its distinct backbone, rules out laboratory manipulation as a potential origin the coronavirus.
Another study of the genome by researchers at the Wuhan Institute for Virology reported coronavirus was 96 percent identical to a coronavirus found in bats, one of the many animals sold at a Wuhan seafood market where it is suspected the virus jumped to humans.
However, the new research was unable to determine whether the virus evolved into its current pathogenic state in a non-human host before jumping to a human, or if it evolved into that state after making the jump.
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