COVID: No, coronavirus was not manufactured in a laboratory. Genetics shows why.

Several months ago, there was speculation that SARS-CoV-2, the cornivirus that causes COVID-19, was made in a Chinese biophone laboratory. This is not true, but the conspiracy theory has gained renewed interest following a paper by a Hong Kong scientist who claims that, in fact, the virus is man-made.

This conspiracy theory is particularly intriguing for several reasons. First, China is a secret, totalitarian country, and it would not be very surprising indeed if the government had a bio-program. Second, China has suppressed research on the origin of coronaviruses. Third, SARS-CoV-2 is actually peculiar to a respiratory virus, as it has the potential to spread throughout the body and damage other organs. Combined, many see a plot.

But circumstantial evidence does not make it true. Either coronoviruses naturally did their work in human populations or, if a Chinese laboratory was actually involved, the virus was likely studied by researchers and accidentally infected one of them. (This would explain why China wants to cover the origin of the virus? If it survived a laboratory, Chinese scientists would be incapacitated.) There is insufficient reason to believe that malicious forces are at play. An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence, and the “man-made virus” theory fails that test.

Genetics reveal why coronavirus evolved and was not man-made

In March, a team of scientists published genome sequence data from the highly prestigious journal SARS-CoV-2 Nature medicine. The main rationale for why the virus did not become man-made is that the spike protein (which binds a human cell receptor called ACE2) was shown to be non-ideal for binding to the receptor. While it binds tightly, computer simulations suggest that other sequences would be better for bonding. This is evidence of the virus being man-made, because presumably, a bioengineer might have chosen a different spike protein gene sequence.

Red flags in new pre-print paper

A new pre-print paper (meaning that it has not yet been peer-reviewed or published in a journal) claims that SARS-CoV-2 was genetically engineered. It provides sound to both data and logic. (The technical aspects are beyond the scope of this article.) The essence of the paper is that the authors believe that the genome exhibits “ambiguous” sequences that suggest manipulation.

There are problems with that argument. The most direct explanation for “suspected” genetic traits is natural recombination with other coronaviruses. Like influenza, gene sequences can be interchanged if two different coronaviruses infect the same animal (or human) at the same time. As a result, a new virus fires out which has a completely unique gene sequence. Then, like everything else, the virus undergoes natural selection. If the gene sequence helps the virus to spread, the virus will be selected through evolutionary powers. In a July 2020 paper Science Well that makes an argument.

Another major problem with pre-print papers is that authors walk out of the gate, accusing them of censorship by scientific journals and accusing those who disagree with them. This is not how seriously scientists behave in the literature. Unless there is overwhelming reason to believe otherwise, the assumption has always been that another team of scientists acted on good faith but came to the wrong conclusion.

Finally, as others have pointed out, pre-print authors are part of an organization called the Rule of Law Society, which is not a scientific organization. It is also associated with some rather unnatural characters. This does not mean that the authors are wrong, but it does raise enough doubt about their credibility. The stated mission of the Society is, “To expose corruption, obstruction, illegality, cruelty, false imprisonment, excessive punishment, harassment and inhumanity in China’s political, legal, business and financial systems.” This is fine, but we probably should not rely on such an organization so that objective scientific analysis can be done.

Trouble with pre-print papers

In a fast advancing world, the scientific method flows at a snail’s pace. To keep up with the changing times, many scientists are now posting papers online without peer review. The upside is that it allows for quick dissemination of important information during a time such as (now, the COVID epidemic). The downside is that it allows a lot of garbage to make international headlines, throwing us into a wild goose chase.