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Scientists are convinced: SARS-CoV-2 was not created in a laboratory
But the question of where the virus came from is still open. Here are the opinions of the researchers.
Discussions about the laboratory origin of the new coronavirus have re-erupted after US government intelligence announced its intention to carefully study this version. However, scientists all over the world unanimously say: coronavirus is a product of natural evolution, not genetic engineering.
This opinion is shared, for example, by immunologist Nigel McMillan of the Menzies Institute of Health in Queensland. According to him, not a single laboratory in the world has a system that could create some changes in the coronavirus.
Back in late March, the journal Nature Medicine published the results of a large-scale study in which the genomic data of SARS-CoV-2, and in particular the fragments of the virus that bind the receptor domain, were studied to find out how it mutated to its deadly version. During the study, a group of scientists was able to find out that SARS-CoV-2 was not subjected to genetic manipulation.
“By comparing the available genome sequence data for known strains of coronavirus, we can accurately determine that SARS-CoV-2 is a natural process,” said Christian Andersen, head of the research group, immunologist at Scripps Research.
Although scientists rule out the artificial origin of the virus, there are fears that it could "escape" from one of the laboratories. For obvious reasons, the suspicion falls primarily on the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). In mid-April, the American press wrote that back in 2018, officials of the US Embassy had security problems in the laboratory of this institute. In addition, the WIV contained the RaTG13 bat virus, the "sibling" of the new coronavirus.
"There is some unsubstantiated speculation that this virus was the source of SARS-CoV-2," said Edward Holmes, an evolutionary virologist at the University of Sydney.
The scientist added that RaTG13 was taken from Yunnan, another province in China (note: the first outbreak of coronavirus occurred in Hubei province), and the level of genome divergence between the two related viruses is equivalent to 50 years of evolutionary change.
The Wuhan Institute has repeatedly denied any involvement in the pandemic. Back in March, the head of the bat coronavirus research, Shi Zhengli, announced that she had carried out a thorough screening right after she received samples from the first patients with COVID-19. According to the scientist, her laboratory has never worked with such a virus.
The experts also recalled that the pandemic was a surprise to anyone but the scientific community. Scientists have been warning governments for years about the threat of a new disease, for which many countries are extremely ill prepared. In 2017, Anthony Fauci, a leading US infectious disease specialist, informed the new president's administration that a sudden outbreak of a new virus was imminent.
“We have known for a long time that another coronavirus, such as SARS and MERS, could cause a pandemic, and therefore the emergence of a new infection with pandemic potential was not unexpected,” explains Hassan Valli, epidemiologist at the Australian University of La Trobe.