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Study proves conspiracy theorists wrong - coronavirus came from nature

The new coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2 (the virus) or Covid-19 (the disease it causes). - AFP
The new coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2 (the virus) or Covid-19 (the disease it causes). - AFP

The new coronavirus is not a “laboratory construct” but emerged as a result of natural evolution, according to a report which demolishes conspiracy theories about the origins of the disease.

The virus first emerged in Wuhan, China, at the end of December and has since spread rapidly across the globe, with more than 200,000 people in some 170 countries worldwide now infected. Roughly 8,200 people have died.

But fear and misinformation have escalated alongside the pandemic, with the World Health Organization warning that the globe is fighting an “infodemic” as well as an epidemic.

One common myth has been that the new virus, called SARS-CoV-2, was originally made in a laboratory. But in the new study, published in Nature Medicine journal, researchers analysed the genome sequence of the coronavirus and found strong evidence it evolved naturally, probably from a bat or a pangolin.

“Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus,” the report concludes.

The team analysed two elements of the “spike protein”, which the virus uses to latch onto and invade a human or animal cell. They found that certain features of the protein are so effective at binding to human cells that it had to be the result of natural selection, not the product of genetic engineering.

This result was reinforced by analysis on the “backbone”, or overall molecular structure, of the virus.

Coronavirus live spread map - animated ..
Coronavirus live spread map - animated ..

If someone wanted to engineer a new coronavirus pathogen they would have constructed it from a backbone of an existing virus known to trigger illness in humans, the researchers wrote.  Yet the SARS-CoV-2 backbone “differed substantially” from the six other coronaviruses known to infect humans.

“By comparing the available genome sequence data for known coronavirus strains, we can firmly determine that SARS-CoV-2 originated through natural processes,” said Dr Kristian Andersen, an associate professor of immunology and microbiology at Scripps Research and lead author on the paper.

“These two features of the virus, the mutations in the receptor-binding domain portion of the spike protein and its distinct backbone, rules out laboratory manipulation as a potential origin for SARS-CoV-2.”

Commenting on the report Dr Josie Golding, epidemics lead at Wellcome, told The Telegraph:  “The report talks about a reverse genetic system - which is basically how you’re able to look at the virus then alter it.

“But the way this virus has evolved, any of the known reverse genetic systems do not apply. This ends any speculation about deliberate genetic engineering.

“This is important research because misinformation could undermine the response,” Dr Golding added. “I hope this has a positive effect to dispel myths and put trust back into strong, scientific evidence.”

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