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expert reaction to comments made by Michael Gove at the COVID-19 Inquiry about the origins of COVID-19, saying the virus may have been man-made

Scientists react to comments made today at the COVID-19 Inquiry about the origins of Coronavirus. 


Prof David Robertson, Head of Viral Genomics and Bioinformatics (Centre for Virus Research), University of Glasgow, said:

“There is no evidence that SARS-CoV-2 was man-made let alone that it escaped from a lab. All of the scientific data clearly points to a virus naturally circulating in horseshoe bats being transmitted to humans most probably via contact with infected live animals at the Huanan Seafood market in Wuhan in late 2019.”


The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan was the early epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic Worobey et al Science, abp8715, doi 10.1126/science.abp8715

The origins of SARS-CoV-2: A critical review. Holmes et al . Cell, 184 2021, dot: 10.1016/j.cell.2021.08.017

The animal origin of SARS-CoV-2. 2021. Lytras, W Xia, J Hughes, X Jiang, DL Robertson,  Science 373 (6558), 968-970, doi: 10.1126/science.abh0117


Prof James Wood, Infectious Disease Epidemiologist at the University of Cambridge and Co-Director of Cambridge Infectious Diseases, said:

“There is strong evidence from virus genomics that the covid-19 virus was not artificially engineered, or made by humans, but likely arose from another virus infecting wildlife. Epidemiological evidence points to the first area where the virus transmitted widely was around, but not restricted to the Hunan Seafood market. There were laboratories in Wuhan which were investigating coronaviruses in samples collected from wild bat populations. Field, observational epidemiology can only identify where cases are first observed and are first transmitting, and cannot distinguish where the first case, which is frequently unobserved, may have occurred. With current knowledge, it is clear that some species of animal, e.g. ferrets and other mustelids may be easily infected by infected humans in close contact. So animals in the market could have been the route of transmission to animals or could have been infected by humans.

“Genomics cannot however distinguish whether the virus transmitted to humans via traded wildlife in the Hunan Seafood market or through a laboratory accident, where a laboratory worker was inadvertently infected from a sample they were processing, subsequently infecting other people. A lab leak is not the same as the leak of a ‘manmade’ virus, but is frequently confused.

“In reality, it may never be possible to know with confidence how the covid-19 virus entered the human population. What is important is that lessons are learned and that live wildlife trade, a well recognised route for zoonotic virus transmission, is reduced or banned and that laboratory safety is properly regulated.”


Prof Alice Hughes, Group Leader Biodiversity Analytics of Terrestrial Ecosystems (BAT) group, University of Hong Kong, said:

“There may be a body of judgement, but sadly this has come from a political and not a scientific basis. What the actual data shows, including data I and my team have collected is that very similar viruses are circulating in wildlife, particularly bats. There is nothing unique in the structure of SARS-CoV2 that does not have similar structures in wildlife, even the infamous Furin cleavage site has putative versions from wild bats. There is no data to support a manmade origin, whilst the infections of mink and other wildlife highlight the ability of the virus to jump between hosts, and similar viruses circulating in wildlife highlight that like the majority of viruses Covid is almost certain to have a natural origin, starting in Rhinolophid (horseshoe) bats, spilling into an intermediate host, and then spilling over into humans through captive wildlife, which we know to be competent hosts of these viruses.”



Declared interests

Prof James Wood: JW is currently funded by Horizon 2020/UKRI to investigate viruses infecting bats, pigs and humans in Ghana. He has previously received other funding for this type of work, including from UKRI, FCDO, Wellcome Trust.

Prof Alice Hughes: “No COI.  Some of my work has been on bats and covid in China, and until the end of 2021 I was working in Yunnan (as I had been since 2013).  These are my comments based on my work and that of various collaborators, as well as my experiences within China and how things operate within China.”

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