New research finds that SARS-CoV-2, the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19, is the result of the natural process of evolution rather than a product of laboratory engineering.
The prestigious publication Nature Medicine, issued a study under the title “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2” by investigators Kristian G. Andersen, Andrew Rambaut, W. Ian Lipkin, Edward C. Holmes & Robert F. Garry. In their research, they have concluded after studying the molecular components of the new coronavirus that it is the result of natural selection.
This version contradicts the one from Luc Montagnier, Nobel Prize winner for his work on HIV. The French virologist said the SARS-CoV-2 virus, was created in a laboratory by inserting genes from HIV-1, the AIDS virus, into a coronavirus.
In the new study, Andersen and colleagues set out to see what they could deduce about the origin of the new coronavirus from analyzing the genomic data available. The authors mention in their paper, that since the start of the outbreak, researchers have been trying to grapple with the origins of the virus that caused it.
Initially, experts linked the virus to the seafood market in Wuhan, China, while later study papers suggested that the virus may have spread to humans from illegally trafficked mammals called pangolins. To evaluate the origin of the new virus, the researchers compared the “backbone” of SARS-CoV-2 with that of other viruses that commonly affect bats and pangolins. They did so using the genetic sequencing data that Chinese scientists made available.
Andersen and his team also looked at spike proteins — features that coronaviruses use to bind to the membrane of the human or animal cells that they infect.
Ending the rumors about SARS-CoV-2
More specifically, the authors of the new research looked at two components of spike proteins: the receptor-binding domain (RBD), which latches onto healthy host cells, and the cleavage site, which opens up the virus and allows it to penetrate the host cell.
To bind to human cells, spike proteins need a receptor on human cells called angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2).
The scientists found that the receptor-binding domain of the spike protein had evolved to target ACE2 so effectively that it could only have been the result of natural selection and not of genetic engineering.
Furthermore, the molecular structure of the backbone of SARS-CoV-2 supported this finding. If scientists had engineered the new coronavirus purposely as a pathogen, explain the researchers, the starting point would likely have been the backbone of another virus in the coronavirus family.
However, the backbone of SARS-CoV-2 was very different than those of other coronaviruses and was most similar to related viruses in bats and pangolins.
“These two features of the virus — the mutations in the RBD portion of the spike protein and its distinct backbone — rule out laboratory manipulation as a potential origin for SARS-CoV-2,” explains Andersen.
“By comparing the available genome sequence data for known coronavirus strains, we can firmly determine that SARS-CoV-2 originated through natural processes.”
– Kristian Andersen
Josie Golding, Ph.D., who is the epidemics lead at the Wellcome Trust, a research charity based in London, United Kingdom, did not participate in the study but comments on its significance. She says the findings are “Important to bring an evidence-based view to the rumors that have been circulating about the origins of the virus (SARS-CoV-2) causing COVID-19. The authors conclude that the virus is the product of natural evolution,” Goulding adds, “ending any speculation about deliberate genetic engineering.”
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