Evidence of COVID’s natural origin mounts even as conspiracy theory about Chinese lab refuses to die

By Joan Conrow

May 13, 2020

Though nearly half of Americans surveyed believe the COVID-19 virus was created in a Chinese lab, mounting scientific evidence continues to point to a natural origin.

The most recent research, published May 10 in the journal Current Biology, offers yet more evidence that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, evolved naturally. The authors identified a bat coronavirus that is SARS-CoV-2’s closest relative in some regions of the viral genome.

In particular the researchers cite insertions of amino acids at the junction of the S1 and S2 subunits of the virus’s spike protein in a manner similar to SAR-CoV-2.

“Since the discovery of SARS-CoV-2 there have been a number of unfounded suggestions that the virus has a laboratory origin,” said senior author Weifeng Shi, director and professor at the Institute of Pathogen Biology at Shandong First Medical University in China. “In particular, it has been proposed the S1/S2 insertion is highly unusual and perhaps indicative of laboratory manipulation. Our paper shows very clearly that these events occur naturally in wildlife. This provides strong evidence against SARS-CoV-2 being a laboratory escape.”

As early as March 17, researchers published investigations of the coronavirus’ genome sequence data in the journal Nature Medicine, showing its likely path to the current pandemic.

“By comparing the available genome sequence data for known coronavirus strains, we can firmly determine that SARS-CoV-2 originated through natural processes,” said Kristian Andersen, PhD, an associate professor of immunology and microbiology at Scripps Research and corresponding author on the Nature Medicine paper. “We do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.”

Yet conspiracy theories claiming that the virus accidentally escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology — or was engineered in a biowarfare laboratory and intentionally released into the human population — continue to circulate. Though this fringe theory initially gained traction with those on the far left, including anti-GMO activist Ronnie Cummins, it has been kept alive and inflamed by conservative American lawmakers who find it politically convenient to blame China for starting a global pandemic.

A survey taken of 6,300 Americans found 44 percent believe the coronavirus was probably created in a lab, while 56 percent said this is likely or definitely untrue. The belief was held by 50 percent of Republicans surveyed, compared with just 37 percent of Democrats. The survey also found that a third of Americans also falsely believe that a COVID-19 vaccine already exists but is being withheld.

The newest research identified a new virus, RmYN02, from an analysis of 227 bat samples collected in Yunnan province, China, between May and October of 2019. They found that similar to SARS-CoV-2, RmYN02 also contains amino acid insertions at the point where the two subunits of its spike protein meet.  SARS-CoV-2 is characterized by a four-amino-acid insertion at the junction of S1 and S2 that is unique to the virus. The insertions in RmYN02 are not the same as those in SARS-CoV-2, which indicates that they occurred through independent insertion events. But a similar insertion event happening in a virus identified in bats strongly suggests that these kinds of insertions are of natural origin.

“Our findings suggest that these insertion events that initially appeared to be very unusual can, in fact, occur naturally in animal betacoronaviruses,” Shi told the Alliance for Science. “Our work sheds more light on the evolutionary ancestry of SARS-CoV-2. Our study strongly suggests that sampling of more wildlife species will reveal viruses that are even more closely related to SARS-CoV-2 and perhaps even its direct ancestors, which will tell us a great deal about how this virus emerged in humans.”

While researchers continue to try and pinpoint the exact origin of SARS-CoV-2, allegations that the virus escaped from the Wuhan lab have had political and scientific consequences.  EcoHealth, a New York City-based nonprofit, lost a sizable federal grant of which the Wuhan Institute of Virology was a sub-awardee. Scientists at the Institute were were studying bat coronaviruses in order to evaluate the possibility of the emergence of just such a pandemic as is currently underway.

As The Washington Post reported: “Beijing has led an authoritarian crackdown on information about the initial coronavirus outbreak, while Washington has demonstrated a cavalier willingness to fuel theories about a Chinese lab accident without presenting any evidence. Caught in the middle are scientists from both countries, facing questions about their research and doubts about whether their years-long collaboration can continue amid escalating geopolitical tension.