A paper that has not been peer-reviewed reaches faulty conclusions to advance the unsubstantiated claim that the novel coronavirus was bioengineered in a Chinese lab, according to immunology and microbiology experts. The paper’s claims were amplified by Fox News, anyway.
A long-circulating, unsubstantiated claim about the origins of the novel coronavirus resurfaced in recent days after a paper published online purported that SARS-CoV-2 was created in a lab.
The baseless claim — which we first addressed in the early days of the pandemic — was further amplified when Fox News host Tucker Carlson featured an interview with one of the authors of the paper on his show on Sept. 15.
That segment was viewed on YouTube nearly 2 million times and that link alone was shared by more nearly 50,000 users on Facebook, according to CrowdTangle analytics data, where other popular posts also repeated the allegations.
But experts say the new paper, which has not been peer-reviewed, does not prove that the virus was created in a lab.
The paper was uploaded to an open-access website Sept. 14 and was published by the “Rule of Law Society & Rule of Law Foundation” — two related entities in New York tied to Steve Bannon, a former adviser to President Donald Trump. Bannon is listed as the chair of the Rule of Law Society in a registration document filed last year with the state.
The organizations are connected to a partnership forged by Bannon and Guo Wengui, an exiled Chinese businessman, that has been described as being based on their shared disdain for the Chinese government. Guo is wanted in China on charges of bribery and fraud — allegations he has denied — according to the New York Times. Bannon announced in November 2018 that Guo would be setting up a $100 million “Rule of Law fund” in part to aid Chinese dissidents and their families.
The new paper attempts to make the case that the novel coronavirus couldn’t have come from nature and instead may have been created by altering a previously discovered bat coronavirus. But several of its main points rest on faulty conclusions.
One of the study’s main claims is that the “genomic sequence of SARS-CoV-2 is suspiciously similar to that of a bat coronavirus discovered by military laboratories” in China and therefore indicates that another coronavirus was used to create the novel coronavirus.
Kristian G. Andersen, a professor of immunology and microbiology at Scripps Research who has studied the origins of the virus, said of the claim on Twitter: “This simply can’t be true – there are more than 3,500 nucleotide differences between SARS-CoV-2 and these viruses.”
And Dr. Stanley Perlman, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Iowa who studies coronaviruses, told us in an email that the coronavirus referenced — ZC45 — is “only 89% related to SARS-CoV-2. In virology terms, that is very distant.”
Perlman said it would be nearly impossible to make the reverse genetics system needed to manipulate the virus and “changing its sequence to arrive at SARS-CoV-2 would be virtually impossible since it would not be known how to manipulate the virus.”
Nevertheless, Dr. Li-Meng Yan — one of the authors of the new paper and a virologist who has claimed she fled China to reveal the truth about COVID-19 — doubled down on Carlson’s show. She alleged a cover-up by the Chinese government and the scientific community.
Yan, Sept. 15: This virus, COVID-19 SARS-CoV-2 virus, actually is not from nature. It is a man-made virus created in the lab based on the China military discovered and owned the very unique bat coronavirus, which cannot affect people, but after the modification become a very harmful virus at now. So, I have evidence to show why they can do it, what they have done, how did they do it.
The paper goes on to suggest that “SARS-CoV-2 contains a unique furin-cleavage site in its Spike protein” — which is “completely absent in this particular class of coronaviruses found in nature” — and that, therefore, the virus was engineered.
Susan R. Weiss, a University of Pennsylvania professor of microbiology who researches coronaviruses, told us in an email that that “makes no sense in terms of what we know about” coronaviruses.
“Among murine coronavirus strains there are viruses with the furin site and strains without — closely related strains closer than SARS-1 and SARS-2 yet they are all virulent,” Weiss said. “So this observation says nothing to me about the virus being engineered.”
A furin site is a short protein sequence that can be recognized and cut by other proteins.
Perlman also said “furin sites are found in many coronaviruses and finding it does not surprise us in the field.”
The paper also argues a conspiracy is afoot by claiming that scientific journals won’t publish the “alternative theory that the virus may have come from a research laboratory.”
“I don’t believe that,” Weiss said. “It is just that the data is not compelling. I don’t know any CoV researchers that believe this at all. There is no way anyone could figure out how to make a virus behave like SARS-2 – asymptomatic spread for [one] thing.”
In March, Andersen and other scientists concluded in an article in Nature Medicine that the novel coronavirus “is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.” The authors said that the virus likely originated in one of two ways: “natural selection in an animal host before zoonotic transfer,” meaning before the spread of disease from animals to humans, or “natural selection in humans following zoonotic transfer.”
The Nature Medicine article did say it couldn’t rule out an accidental laboratory release of the naturally occurring virus, but its authors said they “do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.”
The new, dubious paper attempts to discredit those findings by saying the Nature Medicine study’s authors “show signs of conflict of interests, raising further concerns on the credibility of this publication.”
The supposed support for that allegation: that one of the authors, Columbia University’s Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, received an award from China for his work on public health there following the 2003 outbreak of the coronavirus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.
The new paper also references the curriculum vitae of another author — Edward C. Holmes, a researcher at the University of Sydney in Australia — which shows that he has collaborated with scientists and organizations in China.
“[D]espite the online lies and malicious editing of my Wikipedia page, I have never received any funds from China, personal or research, and have no grants with Chinese scientists. I do have some honorary appointments there and a nice certificate though,” Holmes wrote on Twitter. “I do work closely with some Chinese scientists and as that directly led to the first release of the genome sequence that might just perhaps possibly be argued to be a good thing.”
Andersen also said that the allegation about the authors being “conflicted” was wrong. “[M]y lab has never received funding from China and we have no collaborations with Chinese investigators. I have no financial interests in China,” he said in a tweet. “All our analyses are scientific and unbiased.”
It’s worth noting that collaborations between researchers in the U.S. and China aren’t uncommon. A recent study published in Higher Education found that U.S. research output between 2014 and 2018 would have dropped without Chinese partnerships — while China’s output would have grown regardless of work with the U.S. “[T]he findings demonstrate that the USA has more to lose than gain in cutting ties with China,” its authors wrote.
Public health officials have also suggested the virus originated in bats.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said: “The SARS-CoV-2 virus is a betacoronavirus, like MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV. All three of these viruses have their origins in bats. The sequences from U.S. patients are similar to the one that China initially posted, suggesting a likely single, recent emergence of this virus from an animal reservoir. However, the exact source of this virus is unknown.”
And in April, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in a statement that the “Intelligence Community also concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified.” The intelligence community, it said, “will continue to rigorously examine emerging information and intelligence to determine whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told National Geographic in a May interview, “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.”
“Everything about the stepwise evolution over time strongly indicates that [this virus] evolved in nature and then jumped species,” Fauci said.
Jessica McDonald contributed to this article.
Update, Sept. 28: Experts have since published more thorough reviews of Yan’s paper. Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security concluded that the paper “presents a theory about the origin of SARS-CoV-2 but offers contradictory and inaccurate information that does not support their argument.”
And in a review published by the MIT Press’ “Rapid Reviews COVID-19,” researchers from IBM and the University of Michigan found that the paper “does not demonstrate sufficient scientific evidence to support its claims” and that its “[c]laims are at times baseless and are not supported by the data and methods used.”
Update, May 21, 2021: The exact origin of the coronavirus remains unknown. On May 14 the journal Science published a letter from 18 scientists calling for “more investigation” to determine how the pandemic began. “Theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable,” they wrote. “Knowing how COVID-19 emerged is critical for informing global strategies to mitigate the risk of future outbreaks.”
Update, June 29, 2021: Please see our June 25 story “The Facts – and Gaps – on the Origin of the Coronavirus” for a detailed examination of the debate over the origin of the pandemic.
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Andersen, Kristian G. (@K_G_Andersen). “A few comms on the (lack of) scientific merits of the ‘Yan Report’. It is non-scientific and false – cherry picking data and ignoring data disproving their hypotheses. It’s using technical language that is impossible to decode for non-experts – poppycock dressed up as ‘science’.” Twitter. 15 Sep 2020.
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