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Novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 not artificially made, genomic study debunked

Umar Ahmad

Friday, 27 March 2020

Many people are wondering whether the COVID-19 naturally evolved or  is artificially, a man-made construct from the laboratory. To make it clear, this novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is real, and is not artificially developed from the laboratory. Evidence of this is that scientists performed a simple comparative genomic analysis, a process that compare the genomics features between different organisms and these features could be DNA, RNA or protein sequences. They did this to debunk the speculation going viral around the world that this novel virus is humanly made in the laboratory.

These scientists affiliated with Scripts Research Institute in the US together with their international collaborators in the UK and Australia have debunked the speculations that the newly epidemic coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 that originated from Wuhan, China in 2019 and pandemically spread COVID-19 to over 190 countries  and territories was developed artificially in the laboratory. The study published March 17, 2020 in Nature Medicine.

According to the corresponding author Kristian Andersen who is an Associate Professor of Immunology and Microbiology affiliated with the Scripps Research Institute and the Scripps Research Translational Institute, they compared the genomic sequence of SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and other related virus species that originate from animal hosts and those of humans obtained from publicly available databases.

Their comparative genomic study discovered no evidence to justify that SARS-CoV-2 is produced in the laboratory. Anderson stated  “by comparing the available genome sequence data for known coronavirus strains. We can firmly determine that SARS-CoV-2 originated through natural processes.” And Anderson and his colleagues concluded, the results “clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.”

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses known to cause mild to moderate and a times to even severe upper respiratory tract infections that result in illness like common cold in a human population.  The first known case of severe illness caused by Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) coronavirus emerged from China in 2002 and spread around the world causing deadly illness. By isolation and quarantine measures taken by the authorities, the disease disappeared in 2004 and since then no cases of SARS have been recorded.

The second outbreak of a new coronavirus emerged in Saudi Arabia that was popularly known as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in the year 2012, causing illness that is similar to SARS. The emergence of MERS-CoV led to the development of DNA vaccine and countermeasures that stopped it by NIH scientists from the US. In fact, “SARS-CoV-2 is the seventh coronavirus known to infect humans,” the scientists said. But unlike MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV, which can cause severe disease, “… HKU1, NL63, OC43, and 229E are associated with mild symptoms.”

The first case of patient suffering from SARS-CoV-2, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus was traced to 17th November 2019 as reported by the South China Morning Post who exclusively seen the data from the Chinese government. Report from the World Health Organisation (WHO) showed that the first confirmed case of SARS-CoV-2 in China was on the 8thDecember 2019. However, the Chinese authorities reported the case to WHO about the outbreak of a new strain of coronavirus that causes severe illness that was later named SARS-CoV-2. According to WHO figures as of 28th March 2020, there were 614,224 confirmed cases from over 190 countries and 28,240 confirmed death due to coronavirus-related illness, although several number of cases are not yet reported. However, 137, 328 were reported to have recovered from the disease.

Immediately after this outbreak, scientists in China began to study the novel virus through DNA sequencing technology, a method used to identify the order of nucleotides in organism’s DNA. They succeeded in sequencing the genome of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) and deposited the data in a public repository like NBCI SRA and GISAID for other researchers doing dry-lab work across the world to access and use it. Sequencing the viral genome enable Chinese scientists to rapidly develop a test kit that detected the epidemic despite the rapid increase in number of cases resulting from human to human transmission. Since from the time SARS-CoV-2 spread in Wuhan, China, there has been speculation about its origin and whether the strain is constructed in the laboratory or came from non-natural sources.

To dispel this speculation, Andersen and his colleagues from UK and Australian institutions used the genomic sequence of SARS-CoV-2 that was previously deposited by the Chinese scientists to study the actual origin of the virus and to determine whether the virus is artificially developed in the laboratory or constructed. They did so by aligning the SARS-CoV-2 genome that was fully sequenced to other previously identified coronavirus species. Their genomic sequencing analysis is against the possibility that the virus is a man-made. This is because they discovered the closest relative of SARS-CoV-2 was a coronavirus from bats, “we review what can be deduced about the origin of SARS-CoV-2 from comparative analysis of genomic data,” they wrote. “we offer a perspective on the notable features of the SARS-CoV-2 genome and discuss scenarios by which they could have arisen.”

Being that spikes found on the surface of the virus is what makes the virus look the way they do, the scientists analysed these spikes as it is composed of the spike protein. The virus uses this structure to grab and bind into the human and animal cells. Their focused were mainly on the two important features of the spike protein 1) the receptor binding domain (RBD), a kind of hook that the virus uses to grips onto host cells, and 2) the cleavage site, a molecular opener that allows the virus crack open and enter the host cells. The scientists discovered that the RBD portion of SARS-CoV-2 spike protein had naturally evolved to target molecular feature found outside the human cells that is commonly known as angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 gene (ACE2), an enzyme receptor functioning mostly in regulation of blood pressure. They further identified evidence for natural evolution was supported by data on SARS-CoV-2's backbone which is considered an overall molecular structure of the virus. The SARS-CoV-2 spike protein was effectively binding the human cells and that led the scientists to conclude that the virus was a result of natural selection and not the product of genetic manipulation. “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.

Covid 19

Based on their genomic study, the scientists draw a conclusion that SARS-CoV-2 evolved from two possible scenarios; one of which is that the virus evolved into its current pathogenic state through natural selection in a non-human host and then jumped to humans. This is how the previous outbreaks of coronavirus emerged. Scientists have said that bats are the most likely reservoir for SARS-CoV-2 as this virus is very similar to bat coronavirus.

There are no evident cases of direct bat to human transmission, however, it is likely that the virus is transmitted through an unknown intermediary host from bats to humans. In the second scenario, a non-pathogenic version of the virus jumped from an animal host into humans and then evolved to its current pathogenic state within the human population.

Therefore, the virus is the product of natural selection, debunking any speculation about deliberate construction of the virus in the laboratory through genetic manipulation or engineering. The study has brought evidence-based to debunk the rumours that have been circulating about the actual origins of SARS-CoV-2 that cause COVID-19 pandemically.

Umar Ahmad is a PhD student of Genetics with Genetics and Regenerative Medicine Research Centre (GRMRC) of the Universiti Putra Malaysia(UPM)  and the Malaysia Genome Institute (MGI), studying transcriptomic misregulation in bladder cancer. He can be found on Twitter @babasaraki01. 

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