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Is the coronavirus really artificial? Here's what scientists say
Is the coronavirus really artificial? Here's what scientists say

Nature magazine has collected arguments for the artificial origin of COVID-19 and against this theory.

Is it true that the coronavirus was created in a laboratory? Here's what scientists say
Is it true that the coronavirus was created in a laboratory? Here's what scientists say

The most common theory, held by most researchers, is that SARS ‑ CoV ‑ 2 is likely naturally occurring and passed on to humans from bats or other animals. But the version about a laboratory leak of the virus is also still possible. And recently it has become the subject of heated debate.

Let's figure out what's what in this tangled story.

There is no evidence that the virus was created artificially. Then where does the controversy come from?

The problem is that there is no convincing evidence of the natural origin of SARS ‑ CoV ‑ 2 either. Indirect only.

Researchers know that most new infectious diseases begin with the natural spread of viruses. This was the case with HIV, influenza epidemics, outbreaks of Ebola and other coronaviruses - for example, the pathogens of SARS in 2002 and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) in 2012. There is some evidence to suggest a similar course of events in the case of SARS ‑ CoV ‑ 2.

So, bats are common carriers of coronaviruses. Investigating them, scientists found that the genome of SARS ‑ CoV ‑ 2 is 96% identical to the genome of RATG13 Peng Zhou, Xing ‑ Lou Yang, Zheng ‑ Li Shi. A pneumonia outbreak associated with a new coronavirus of probable bat origin / Nature is a coronavirus that was discovered in 2013 in a horseshoe bat in the southern Chinese province of Yunnan. But 96% similarity is not yet 100%. Perhaps a closer relative of SARS ‑ CoV ‑ 2, the one that was transmitted to humans from bats or other animals, remains unknown.

Another indirect confirmation of the naturalness of COVID-19 is the fact that laboratory leaks of viruses, although they happened before, have never caused epidemics. An illustrative incident took place in 2004. Two employees of a virology laboratory in Beijing that studied SARS were independently infected with the SARS virus. They managed to infect seven more people with SARS Update - May 19, 2004 / CDC, but then the outbreak was stopped.

What are the arguments for a laboratory leak?

Purely theoretically, it is quite possible. For example, researchers could isolate SARS ‑ CoV ‑ 2 from an animal and store it in a laboratory for study. Another option: SARS ‑ CoV ‑ 2 could have been created artificially, in the course of work on the genomes of known coronaviruses. Both of these scenarios assume that laboratory staff accidentally or intentionally infected a person with the resulting pathogen. Then the infected took to the city streets and began to spread the disease to other people.

As of today, there is no convincing evidence that events developed in this way. But the above options are not incredible.

In addition, it is suspicious that over a year and a half of the pandemic it was not possible to find an animal that could be the carrier of the immediate predecessor of SARS ‑ CoV ‑ 2 and infect humans with this virus.

Another strange coincidence is the Wuhan Institute of Virology itself. It is the world's leading laboratory for the study of coronaviruses. Surprisingly, it is located so close to the market from where COVID-19 began its world tour.

Some supporters of the version of the laboratory leak argue that the virus has unusual features and regions in the genome, which could have appeared only if SARS ‑ CoV ‑ 2 had been artificially developed. Others recall how incredibly quickly this pathogen spreads among people, as if it was specially created for this purpose.

Another argument: in theory, SARS ‑ CoV ‑ 2 could be isolated from the coronaviruses that researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology found in an abandoned mine. Chinese scientists studied bats from this mine from 2012 to 2015. But there is little information on the results of these scientific works. It is possible that the Wuhan virologists could have hidden something.

Here's what infectious disease researchers and evolutionary biologists have to say about these arguments.

Is the fact that a carrier animal has not been found really arousing suspicion?

Not really. It often takes years to figure out the causes of an outbreak of a disease. And in some cases, it is not possible to find the "culprit" at all.

For example, it took scientists 14 years to establish the cause of the SARS epidemic. Only after this period was it possible to convincingly prove that the source was bats, and that the pathogen was transmitted to humans, most likely, by civets - predatory animals similar to a weasel. But where the Ebola virus came from is still not clear: researchers have not yet been able to isolate its full version in a particular animal.

Finding the source of infection is further complicated by the fact that outbreaks in the world of fauna are often sporadic. That is, they arise and stop randomly. This means scientists need to find a carrier animal before it dies or gets rid of the virus, which is not easy in itself. But even if it works, and the tests taken from the animal give a positive result for the infection, the virus that can be isolated from the subject's saliva, feces or blood often decomposes quickly. This means that it is not always possible to completely decipher its genome in order to verify it with the genome of the pathogen that affects people.

However, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists have made some progress. For example, report by Spyros Lytras, Joseph Hughes, Darren Martin, Arné de Klerk, Rentia Lourens, Sergei L. Kosakovsky Pond, Wei Xia, Xiaowei Jiang, David L. Robertson. Exploring the natural origins of SARS ‑ CoV ‑ 2 in the light of recombination / BioRxiv, published on the bioRxiv preprint server on May 27, reports the RmYN02 virus. It is a coronavirus found in bats from southern China. And it seems to be much closer to SARS ‑ CoV ‑ 2 than RATG13.

As for the search for an intermediate host of the pathogen, Chinese researchers have tested more than 80 thousand wild and domestic animals suitable for this role. None of the tests tested positive for SARS ‑ CoV ‑ 2. However, 80 thousand is only a small part of the fauna of China. So more extensive testing is needed.

Is it a coincidence that the market in Wuhan, where the pandemic started, is located next to the Institute of Virology?

It is important not to confuse cause and effect here.

Vincent Munster, a virologist at the Rocky Mountain Laboratory (USA), explains that research centers usually specialize in the microorganisms that surround them. The Wuhan Institute of Virology studies coronaviruses only because there are plenty of them in Wuhan and in China in general.

Munster lists other laboratories working with endemic. Endemic - local, specific to a particular area. pathogens. For example, influenza is being studied in Asia. Hemorrhagic fever - in Africa. Dengue fever occurs in Latin America.


Vincent Munster Virologist.

In 9 cases out of 10, when somewhere there is an outbreak of a viral disease, a laboratory working with this type of pathogens will certainly be found nearby.

Other researchers note that the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan is not surprising. It is a city of 11 million people, located in a province that is literally teeming with various coronaviruses. Wuhan has an airport, numerous train stations and markets, which sell, among other things, animal carcasses delivered from all over the region. This means that SARS ‑ CoV ‑ 2 could easily penetrate the metropolis and quickly spread there.

Does the coronavirus have features that indicate an artificial origin?

At least several laboratories were looking for traces of bioengineering in the SARS ‑ CoV ‑ 2 genome. One of the first was the research team led by Christian Andersen, virologist at Scripps Research in La Jolla, California, USA.

Scientists' verdict: "The artificial origin of the coronavirus is not likely."

Researchers were unable to locate Kristian G. Andersen, Andrew Rambaut, W. Ian Lipkin, Edward C. Holmes, Robert F. Garry. The proximal origin of SARS ‑ CoV ‑ 2 / Nature even hints at genetic manipulations in the viral genome. This means that SARS ‑ CoV ‑ 2 most likely arose on its own, as a result of natural evolution.

What about the coronavirus spreading too quickly among humans?

The fact that SARS ‑ CoV ‑ 2 is highly contagious does not mean that someone originally programmed the virus to do this.

By the way, people are far from the only victims of COVID-19. The coronavirus also infects other mammals such as minks.


Joel Wertheim Molecular epidemiologist at the University of California, San Diego.

SARS ‑ CoV ‑ 2 is clearly not a human-adapted pathogen.

Could the coronavirus get to people from an abandoned mine?

Between 2012 and 2015, researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology took hundreds of biomaterial samples from bats that inhabited an abandoned mine near the city. This happened after several miners working nearby contracted an unknown SARS. As it turned out later, it was most likely not about COVID-19.

The analyzes revealed about 300 coronaviruses. But only a few were able to decipher - in whole or in part. Moreover, none of them, according to Chinese scientists, looked like SARS-CoV-2.

The samples held at the Wuhan Institute of Virology are not available to the international community. However, experts are not surprised by the fact that out of 300 species, only a few have been deciphered. The fact is that it is extremely difficult to extract intact coronaviruses from the biomaterial of bats. Pathogen levels in animals are generally low. And as we said, viruses in saliva, feces and blood drops quickly decompose.

In addition, in order to study any infection, it must be kept active. That is, to continuously provide suitable cells of living beings for it, so that it can reproduce. And this is a big problem.

Summary: To isolate SARS ‑ CoV ‑ 2 from bat samples in an abandoned mine, Chinese virologists would have to overcome serious technical problems. And for several years to keep the information received in the strictest confidence. And then for another year and a half since the beginning of the pandemic, to lead scientists from the WHO by the nose. There is no evidence of such a complex course of events, but theoretically it cannot be ruled out.

So what happens next? When will the truth be revealed?

It is completely incomprehensible.

On May 26, US President Joe Biden ordered Biden orders review of COVID origins as lab leak theory debated / Reuters to the US intelligence services to join forces and find the source of SARS-CoV-2, whatever it may be. They were given 90 days for everything, and the term expires at about the end of August.

Perhaps this investigation will shed light on the Intelligence on Sick Staff at Wuhan Lab Fuels Debate on Covid-19 Origin / The Wall Street Journal released by The Wall Street Journal that at least three employees of the Wuhan Institute of Virology were sick with COVID-19 back in November. 2019. That is, before China officially announced the first cases of the disease.

However, in the PRC this information is denied. It is argued that the researchers were really sick with something. However, the tests taken from them did not confirm the diagnosis of COVID-19.

But how true this is, it is impossible to say. The world community does not have access to the medical records of patients, as well as to other materials stored in Wuhan, and China is in no hurry to provide it. Instead, Chinese officials recommend Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian's Regular Press Conference on May 27, 2021 / Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the People's Republic of China to “open an investigation in American laboratories,” hinting that SARS ‑ CoV ‑ 2 could have been leaked in USA.

Based on all this, experts suggest that the road to the truth about the SARS ‑ CoV ‑ 2 coronavirus will be long. It may take years to collect pieces of evidence.