- A team of international researchers has used the SARS-CoV-2 genome to study the origin of the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease.
- The researchers found that the coronavirus evolved naturally, rejecting ideas that it could have been manufactured artificially in a laboratory for use as a bioweapon.
- The scientists have two different scenarios as to how the virus mutated to attack human hosts, and both involve acquiring a precursor of the novel coronavirus virus from animals.
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As amazing modern technology might be when it comes to dealing with a pandemic like the novel coronavirus when it comes to staying updated on developments and dealing with boredom while practicing social distancing, there’s also a huge side-effect that needs addressing. The spread of fake news, myths, and conspiracy theories that surround COVID-19 are real things that are happening online. Tech giants including Facebook, Google, and Twitter, are already taking steps to prevent the spread of misinformation, which can only sow further panic. And it turns out that scientists are ready to provide plenty of answers that should stop some of the misinformation campaigns happening online.
Researchers have been able to determine that the novel coronavirus pandemic is a natural event and that the SARS-CoV-2 virus isn’t a man-made bioweapon, as you might have heard from that friend or family member of yours who keeps forwarding conspiracy theories to your phone.
Scientists from around the world (Scripps Research, Tulane University, University of Sydney, University of Edinburgh, and Columbia University) were able to prove that the SARS-CoV-2’s design and M.O. are the result of a natural evolution of the virus, rather than laboratory engineering. “By comparing the available genome sequence data for known coronavirus strains, we can firmly determine that SARS-CoV-2 originated through natural processes,” Scripps Research’s Kristian Andersen told Science Daily.
The researchers analyzed the genome of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in search of the chemical components that allow it to grab onto human cells (a spike protein) and the cleavage site that lets the virus enter the host cells. They found that the spike protein is targeting ACE2 receptors on the outside of human cells, which are responsible for regulating blood pressure. The team concluded that the binding to ACE2 was so effective that it can only have occurred via natural selection, not genetic engineering. Furthermore, they compared the genome to other viruses known to cause illness. If it were constructed in a lab, the COVID-19 virus would have resembled some of the existing viruses.
“These two features of the virus, the mutations in the RBD portion of the spike protein and its distinct backbone, rule out laboratory manipulation as a potential origin for SARS-CoV-2,” said Andersen.
The discovery should kill conspiracy theories, but that’s just a bonus. What the researchers tried to understand was how the virus mutated so that the scientific community might take steps to prevent future outbreaks. They’re working with two different premises. One says the virus could have evolved to the current state inside an animal before jumping to humans. If that’s the case, then future epidemics might occur since we have little information about what “animal zero” might be, or how widespread the SARS-CoV-2 presence in those animals might be.
The second hypothesis is that the virus jumped to humans first, where it then mutated to its current, pathogenic form. That’s to say that once defeated in humans, the virus might disappear for good barring other mutations. While more data is needed to determine the source of the virus, the authors of the study say they do not believe that “any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.
Next time you receive coronavirus conspiracy theories about a nation-state having developed COVID-19 and sitting on a cure for its own good, you might want to point those truthers to the full study that’s available in Nature Magazine. Also, remember that the virus spreads and kills no matter what you think about its origin. Practicing proper hygiene and staying home as much as possible in the coming weeks and months is the only thing you can do to keep yourself and others safe.