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expert reaction to preprint entitled ‘Unusual features of the SARS-CoV-2 genome suggesting sophisticated laboratory modification rather than natural evolution and delineation of its probable synthetic route’

A preprint, an unpublished non-peer-reviewed paper posted online, reports to show evidence SARS-COV-2 was developed in a laboratory, rather than developed via natural evolution.  

 

Dr Gkikas Magiorkinis, Assistant Professor of Hygiene and Epidemiology and Scientific Coordinator of the National Reference Centre for Retroviruses, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, said:

“The paper ‘Unusual Features of the SARS-CoV-2 Genome Suggesting Sophisticated Laboratory Modification Rather Than Natural Evolution and Delineation of Its Probable Synthetic Route’ by Li-Meng et al, is a preprint publication which means it has not passed through a peer-review process.  The peer-review process is an essential part of scientific publications, it means that independent scientists have read the study and have concluded that it is sufficiently robust and valid.

“In our peer-reviewed paper ‘Full-genome evolutionary analysis of the novel corona virus (2019-nCoV) rejects the hypothesis of emergence as a result of a recent recombination event’, we analysed SARS-CoV-2 genome in comparison with available coronavirus sequences and by means of molecular evolution analyses.  We saw that the genome of SARS-CoV-2 is more than 95% similar to another coronavirus RaTG3 isolated from bats.  In another analysis, ‘Identifying SARS-CoV-2-related coronaviruses in Malayan pangolins’, another group retrieved closely related to SARS-CoV-2 coronaviruses from pangolins and thus it was clearly shown that closely related coronaviruses have animal reservoirs.

“Thus, to sum-up, closely related coronaviruses have been retrieved from animals such as bats and pangolins which makes the scenario of naturally occurring evolution far more likely than any scenario of laboratory manipulation.  In fact we have clear history of zoonotic origin of lethal coronavirus outbreaks such as SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV.  The paper by Li-Meng et al. does not provide any robust evidence of artificial manipulation, no statistical test of alternative hypotheses (natural evolution vs artificial manipulation) and is highly speculative.”

 

Prof Daniel Altmann, Professor of Immunology, Imperial College London, said:

“Analysis of the origins of SARS-CoV-2 has been one of the most contentious area in research during this pandemic.  For my taste, the bulk of the data fit with the consensus that this is a virus transferred to humans from bats or pangolins, where one can find terribly similar coronaviruses.  Thus, this study is interesting, but perhaps an outlier opinion.”

 

Dr Andrew Preston, Reader in Microbial Pathogenesis, University of Bath, said:

“This preprint report cannot be given any credibility in its current form.

“The report is not based on an objective interpretation of the SARS-CoV2 genome.  The interpretations made are not supported by data, are unsubstantiated and the interpretations are largely stated but not explained.  The report does not appear to start with an open hypothesis about the origin of SARS-CoV2.  The language of the report is reminiscent of a conspiracy theory, for example it says “Although it may be convenient to copy the exact sequence of SARS RBM, it would be too clear a sign of artificial design and manipulation. The more deceiving approach would be to change a few non- essential residues, while preserving the ones critical for binding”.

“The authors’ affiliation is the Rule of Law Society and Rule of Law Foundation, New York.  On their website the vision of this organisation is “To permit the people of China to live under a national system based on the rule of law, independent of the political system of the People’s Republic of China (“China”)” and its mission is “To expose corruption, obstruction, illegality, brutality, false imprisonment, excessive sentencing, harassment, and inhumanity pervasive in the political, legal, business and financial systems of China.”

“Given the unsubstantiated claims in the publication, which has not been peer reviewed, the report cannot be viewed with any credibility as it stands.”

 

Dr Michael Head, Senior Research Fellow in Global Health, University of Southampton, said:

“This particular conspiracy around deliberate release form a laboratory has been doing the rounds throughout the pandemic.  It has been rebutted several times already.  Ultimately, it could be damaging to public health if reported uncritically without looking at the wider evidence.  If people are exposed to and then believe conspiracy theories, this will likely have a negative impact on efforts to keep COVID-19 cases low and thus there will be more death and illness than there needs to be.

“The genomics of the virus and likely origins have been disentangled previously, for example a Nature peer-reviewed paper1 where they state “Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus”.  Other evidence also shows that this type of Coronavirus has existed in bats for decades.

“This new manuscript is not peer reviewed, and does not obviously offer any data that overrides previous research.”

1 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-020-0820-9

Can also see any number of other papers e.g. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41579-020-0336-9 or https://www.nature.com/articles/s41564-020-0771-4

 

 

 

Preprint (not a published paper): https://zenodo.org/record/4028830#.X2DPTWhKiUn

 

All our previous output on this subject can be seen at this weblink:

www.sciencemediacentre.org/tag/covid-19

 

Declared interests

None received.

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