Sorry, conspiracy theorists. A team of American, European, and Australian scientists concludes that COVID-19 is not engineered in the laboratory.
Scientists analyzed the genome sequence data from SARS-CoV-2, the virus that created COVID-19, and found that the virus developed naturally.
“By comparing the available genome sequence data for known coronavirus strains, we can firmly determine that SARS-CoV-2 originated through natural processes,” said Kristian Andersen, PhD, an associate professor of immunology and microbiology at Scripps Research and corresponding author on the paper.
The researchers said they did a reverse sequencing of the SARS-CoV-2 genome and actively looked for the “backbone” of the virus that is causing the illness.
“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. But the scientists found that the SARS-CoV-2 backbone differed substantially from those of already known coronaviruses and mostly resembled related viruses found in bats and pangolins,” Science Daily reported.
They also checked on the virus’ spike proteins — the red needle-looking outer part of the molecular cell. They discovered that the “hook” that attaches the virus to the host called receptor-binding domain (RBD) had evolved to effectively target a molecular feature on the outside of human cells called ACE2, a receptor involved in regulating blood pressure.
“The SARS-CoV-2 spike protein was so effective at binding the human cells, in fact, that the scientists concluded it was the result of natural selection and not the product of genetic engineering,” the Science Daily explained.
“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 for SARS-CoV-2” said Andersen.
The study effectively negates the conspiracy theories that are now spreading in the social media that China bio-engineered the virus by showing an “evidence-based view” that the virus had mutated naturally.
So where did the virus originate?
The scientists offered two theories:
- Pathogenic virus infects animal (most probably bats), then transmits to another animal (possibly pangolin), before passing it on to humans.
- Non-pathogenic version of the virus infects animal then transmits to human, or animal-animal-human and the virus stayed in the human population for a long time, before it evolved into SARS-CoV-2
“It is difficult, if not, impossible to know at this point which of the scenarios is most likely,” co-author Andrew Rambaut said.
But if it were a pathogenic virus transmission — then humanity better prepared for the second coming. “It raises the probability of future outbreaks, as the illness-causing strain of the virus could still be circulating in the animal population and might once again jump into humans,” he warned.