EXPERT REACTION: Did COVID-19 come from a lab in Wuhan?

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Not peer-reviewed: This work has not been reviewed and scrutinised by independent experts. If you are reporting on research that has yet to go through peer-review (eg. conference abstracts and pre-publication journal articles) be aware that the findings can change during the peer review process.

Speculation that the virus that causes COVID-19 originated in a Wuhan lab has been given some weight, as the Trump Administration has announced an investigation into the matter. Secretary of State Mike Pence has been quoted saying Beijing “needs to come clean” on what they know.

Organisation/s: La Trobe University, Griffith University, The University of Sydney, Flinders University, Australian Academy of Science

Funder: N/A

Expert Reaction

These comments have been collated by the Science Media Centre to provide a variety of expert perspectives on this issue. Feel free to use these quotes in your stories. Views expressed are the personal opinions of the experts named. They do not represent the views of the SMC or any other organisation unless specifically stated.

Nikolai Petrovsky is a Professor in the College of Medicine and Public Health at Flinders University. He is also Research Director, Vaxine Pty Ltd

An extremely important but still unanswered question is what was the original source of the COVID-19 virus. While SARS-CoV-2 has some similarities to SARS CoV and other bat viruses, no natural virus matching to COVID-19 has yet been found in animals.

Our group at Flinders University in collaboration with researchers at La Trobe University have used a modelling approach to study the possible evolutionary origins of COVID-19 by modelling interactions between its spike protein and a broad variety of ACE2 receptors from animals and humans.

This work which has been made available on a prepress server, Arxiv and is downloadable at  http://arxiv.org/abs/2005.06199 shows that the strength of binding of COVID-19 to human ACE2 exceeds the predicted strength of binding to ACE2 of the other tested species, with pangolin ACE2 having the next highest affinity. This high binding to human ACE2 suggests the possibility that the COVID-19 spike protein has previously undergone selection on human ACE2 or a closely related ACE2 variant.  How this might have happened is currently unknown and warrants further scientific investigation.

Please note that this quote was updated on 17 June 2020.

Last updated: 17 Jun 2020 5:50pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
Vaxine Pty Ltd has a COVID-19 vaccine in advanced preclinical development that is anticipated to commence human clinical trials in the near future.
Professor Edward Holmes is an evolutionary virologist and a member of the Charles Perkins Centre and the Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity at the University of Sydney

There is no evidence that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans, originated in a laboratory in Wuhan, China.
 
Coronaviruses like SARS-CoV-2 are commonly found in wildlife species and frequently jump to new hosts. This is also the most likely explanation for the origin of SARS-CoV-2.
 
The closest known relative of SARS-CoV-2 is a bat virus named RaTG13, which was kept at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. There is some unfounded speculation that this virus was the origin of SARS-CoV-2. However:
 
(i) RaTG13 was sampled from a different province of China (Yunnan) to where COVID-19 first appeared; and
(ii) the level of genome sequence divergence between SARS-CoV-2 and RaTG13 is equivalent to an average of 50 years (and at least 20 years) of evolutionary change. 
 
Hence, SARS-CoV-2 was not derived from RaTG13.
 
In addition, we know that viruses related to SARS-CoV-2 are also found in pangolins. This suggests that other wildlife species are likely to carry relatives of SARS-CoV-2.
 
In summary, the abundance, diversity and evolution of coronaviruses in wildlife strongly suggests that SARS-CoV-2 is of natural origin. However, a greater sampling of animal species in nature, including bats from Hubei province, is needed to resolve the exact origins of SARS-CoV-2.

Last updated: 17 Apr 2020 12:20pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Professor Nigel McMillan is the Director in Infectious Diseases and Immunology at Menzies Health Institute Queensland, Griffith University

All evidence so far points to the fact the CVOID19 virus is naturally derived and not man-made.

The genetic changes in the virus can be found in two other coronaviruses from bats and pangolins and these are the source hosts. If you were going to design it in a lab the sequence changes make no sense as all previous evidence would tell you it would make the virus worse.  No system exists in the lab to make some of the changes found.

Finally, analysis shows that the sorts of mutations found in the virus are clearly natural and not man-made.  All this is outlined in serious detail in an article by Christian Stevens from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York (here).

Last updated: 17 Apr 2020 12:17pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Hassan Vally is an Associate Professor in Epidemiology at La Trobe University

There is no substance to this claim and other conspiracy theories about the origin of COVID-19.

We’ve been aware for some time that another coronavirus, like SARS and MERS before it, could cause a pandemic, and so in many ways, the emergence of a new coronavirus with pandemic potential is not a surprise.

Whilst there is absolutely no evidence to support the conspiracy theories being propagated by a few individuals, there actually is evidence to support the natural emergence of the novel coronavirus, with preliminary genotyping studies showing its relationship with other bat viruses. We have to be careful to not aid those irresponsibly using this global crisis for political point-scoring by giving any oxygen to these and other rumours.

Last updated: 17 Apr 2020 12:10pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.

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Multimedia:

  • AAS' The Latest from Science with Prof Eddie Holmes [Ep.003]

    Professor Eddie Holmes explains the origins of COVID-19. This is episode 3 of the #LatestFromScience webcast series, the Australian Academy of Science's response to provide credible and up to date information right now on COVID-19.

    File Size: 63.9 MB

    Attribution: Australian Academy of Science

    Permission Category: Free to share (must credit)

    Last Modified: 22 Jun 2020 3:20pm

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