A new scientific analysis of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) has argued that scientists should not rule out the possibility that the virus originated in a laboratory setting, no matter how likely or unlikely that could be
While U.S. officials and intelligence agencies have held out the possibility of a leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, China has dismissed the idea as a conspiracy theory.
The scientific community has generally agreed with China’s position that the Coronavirus jumped species in nature, probably at a wet market in the city of Wuhan. That view has been in part based on the evidence that the COVID-19 virus was not genetically manipulated.
Scientists who looked at the study at Newsweek‘s request said that the analysis is unconventional and uses techniques that are unproven. They cautioned against drawing conclusions until more research can corroborate the analysis.
The new study, which has not been peer-reviewed and was published on the site bioRxiv hosted by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, notes that the novel virus is “well adapted for humans.” It was authored by scientists from the Department of Zoology & Biodiversity Research Center at the University of British Columbia, the Fusion Genomics Corporation and the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. bioRxiv cautions that studies published on its site should not “be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice/health-related behavior, or be reported in news media as established information.”
“Our observations suggest that by the time SARS-CoV-2 was first detected in late 2019, it was already pre-adapted to human transmission to an extent similar to late epidemic SARS-CoV. However, no precursors or branches of evolution stemming from a less human-adapted SARS-CoV-2-like virus have been detected,” the authors of the study explained in the abstract.
“The sudden appearance of a highly infectious SARS-CoV-2 presents a major cause for concern that should motivate stronger international efforts to identify the source and prevent near future re-emergence,” they warned.
The analysis explains that there is still no clear evidence to point to a precise origin of the virus. The researchers explained, based on the genetic makeup and samples of the virus, it remains unclear whether SARS-CoV-2 adapted inside an intermediary animal host, within a human, or in a laboratory setting. It could have potentially jumped from species to species within a lab.
“Even the possibility that a non-genetically-engineered precursor could have adapted to humans while being studied in a laboratory should be considered, regardless of how likely or unlikely,” the authors wrote.
In conclusion, the study cautions that various possibilities for how the outbreak began in humans “means that we need to take precautions against each scenario to prevent re-emergence.”
Jonathan Eisen, a professor at the University of California, Davis, tweeted a thread Sunday about the study, after Newsweek published this story. He wrote: “I find this conclusion to be unconvincing for many reasons including: 1) They have not shown their methods work for detecting these patterns 2) Only compare to CoV 3) Not enough testing of alternative hypothesis 4) No strong evidence CoV2 well adapted to humans from start.”
“I note – there are some interesting analyses in this preprint but I am really just not convinced that they have shown that they can make the inferences they are making based on these analysis,” he added.
As Newsweek reported on April 27, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency updated an assessment of the origins of the novel coronavirus pandemic to suggest that it could have accidentally leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan, China. Previously the assessment had concluded that the new virus had “probably occurred naturally.”
Scientists and the intelligence community have largely dismissed conspiracy theories that the virus was genetically manipulated. Many scientists have also stressed that it is more likely that the virus arose naturally than that it leaked from a lab, although there is not yet conclusive evidence for either theory.
President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and some top Republican lawmakers have quickly jumped behind the theory that the virus could have emerged from a lab leak. The Wuhan Institute of Virology was known to be researching coronaviruses similar to the one that has now caused the pandemic. But Chinese scientists at the facility and Chinese officials have roundly rejected the possibility that a lab leak could have spurred the global outbreak.
Pompeo has said that the U.S. does not have “certainty” about the Wuhan lab theory, but has said that there is “significant evidence that this came from the laboratory.” Meanwhile, China has maintained that the virus emerged naturally, with initial analysis suggesting it came from a now infamous wet market in Wuhan.
However, the new study published on bioRxiv explains that from the wet market samples still in existence, it’s not possible to determine if there was an intermediary species before the virus jumped to humans. “If intermediate animal hosts were present at the market, no evidence remains in the genetic samples available,” the researchers wrote. They conclude that the available market samples were most likely from humans, not animals.
Trump, who is facing significant criticism within the U.S. for his administration’s response to the pandemic, has repeatedly blamed China for the novel coronavirus outbreak. He has also suggested that the U.S. will attempt to punish China.
“There are many things we could do,” the president told Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo on Thursday morning. “We could cut off the whole relationship.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, a key member of Trump’s coronavirus task force who serves as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has been less receptive to the Wuhan lab theory.
“If you look at the evolution of the virus in bats and what’s out there now, [the scientific evidence] is very, very strongly leaning toward this could not have been artificially or deliberately manipulated – the way the mutations have naturally evolved,” Fauci said in an interview with National Geographic earlier this month.
“A number of very qualified evolutionary biologists have said that everything about the stepwise evolution over time strongly indicates that [this virus] evolved in nature and then jumped species,” he said.
China has faced significant international criticism for its handling of the novel coronavirus outbreak. Chinese officials initially covered up the outbreak in Wuhan. They have also appeared to be censoring research into the origins of the virus, and German and U.S. intelligence suggests that the World Health Organization (WHO) was pressured by China to downplay the threat posed by COVID-19. Meanwhile, the Chinese government has attempted to shift the narrative, as it tries to position itself as a global leader in dealing with the pandemic by sending medical supplies to nations around the world.
As research into the origins of the novel coronavirus continues, the global pandemic has already infected nearly 4.7 million people around the world. Of those infected, more 313,000 have died while over 1.7 million have already recovered.
Updated 7:05 PM ET, to include a tweet by Jonathan Eisen commenting on the study.