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Posts Distort Chinese Research Creating Fragment of Monkeypox Viral Genome

SciCheck Digest

A Wuhan Institute of Virology study describes assembling part of a monkeypox viral genome for use in a diagnostic test. Although the researchers only made a fraction of the genome — and it matches a different version of the virus — social media posts are using the study to baselessly claim that the current monkeypox outbreak is a result of a lab leak.

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On July 23, the World Health Organization declared monkeypox, a less dangerous relative of smallpox, a public health emergency of international concern.

Monkeypox is a viral disease. People have typically become infected sporadically in the forested parts of Central and West Africa after an interaction with an infected animal. Once infected, however, people can spread the virus to others through close contact.

That’s what is happening now with the current outbreak, which was first recognized in the U.K. in May. So far, cases have primarily affected men who have sex with men, but anyone who is exposed can contract the virus. (For more, see SciCheck’s “Q&A on Monkeypox.”)

Of the two main types of monkeypox virus, the current outbreak is caused by the less severe West African version, or “clade.”

There were 4,907 confirmed monkeypox cases in the U.S. and 21,148 cases globally as of July 28, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The U.S. is among the nations with the most cases — causing concern among some Americans about contracting the disease, despite knowing little about it.

The quick rise in cases has led to the spread of baseless claims on social media regarding the origins of the recent outbreak.

Social media posts are citing a Chinese study published in June in the science journal Virologica Sinica to claim without evidence that the monkeypox virus originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The claim is similar to previous unsupported theories about the origins of SARS-CoV-2. 

But experts say that the study cited in the posts does not show a monkeypox lab leak. The genome sequence used in the study is genetically distinct from the virus circulating in the recent outbreak, and no monkeypox virus was ever created in the study.

Jimmy Dore, a frequent purveyor of misinformation on “The Jimmy Dore Show” on YouTube, produced a segment on July 20 with the headline, “Wuhan Lab Was Experimenting On Monkeypox Before Outbreak.” 

During the segment, Dore showed a video of Dr. John Campbell, a retired nurse educator, discussing monkeypox and the Chinese study. 

Campbell says in the video that the National Institute of Health and the Wuhan Institute of Virology were conducting experiments with monkeypox prior to the outbreak and misleadingly suggests viewers may “draw some parallels” between the origins of the monkeypox outbreak and the origins of SARS-CoV-2.

After playing a clip of Campbell saying the NIH and the Wuhan Institute had been studying monkeypox before the outbreak, Dore asked, “What are the odds of that?”

Dore continued, “whenever there’s a new outbreak now, 50/50 chance it was started in the Wuhan Lab funded by Dr. Fauci and the NIH,” referring to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.   

Kurt Metzger, a comedian and Dore’s partner on the show, added, “not even a different virology lab accident, the same one.”

The video has received more than 49,000 views on Facebook and 121,000 views on YouTube.

Dore posted another video two days later with the headline, “Corporate Media Lies About ‘Debunking’ Monkeypox Leak Theory,” sharing the same unfounded claim and playing the same clip of Campbell. 

Other posts online make similar baseless claims that monkeypox was engineered in a Wuhan lab

“Funny how monkey pox was made in the Wuhan lab a few months ago!! WHO corrupt to the core, bought and paid for by Pfizer and Gates,” reads one tweet.

Study Assembled Partial Viral Genome for Monkeypox Detection

The claims made by Dore and the other posts about the Chinese study are inaccurate or misleading on several points.

First, the study was not conducted by the Wuhan Institute of Virology lab associated with theories about the origins of SARS-CoV-2. 

The social media posts also misinterpret the purpose and results of the study, as our colleagues at Health Feedback have also explained.

Dr. Rebecca Fischer, an assistant professor teaching infectious disease epidemiology at Texas A&M University, told us in an email that the study “does not prove, nor does it suggest or seek to prove, that the monkeypox virus associated with the current international spread originated in a laboratory, nor in China.”

The primary goal of the study was to test a method known as transformation-associated recombination, which is used to assemble large pieces of DNA. The Wuhan Institute of Virology scientists used it in this case to create a portion of the monkeypox viral genome that could be used in a molecular diagnostic test known as PCR, or polymerase chain reaction.

Benjamin Neuman, chief virologist of the Global Health Research Complex and professor of biology at Texas A&M University, told us in an email there is no link between the recent monkeypox outbreak and the Wuhan study.

Neuman said that the study is a “technical paper, testing out a new way to assemble small pieces of DNA into larger pieces of DNA.”

In molecular biology, making small pieces of DNA is easy, but making larger DNA strands is very difficult.  So, people have worked out creative ways to stitch small DNA strands to make larger ones — this is one of many,” Neuman added. “People assemble DNA in labs and companies around the world every day — it is an activity at the heart of modern biology and medical science.”

“The process described here is in no way the same thing as creating a virus,” Fischer said.

The monkeypox sequence the scientists used to assemble the partial genome is also different from the virus now circulating. While the current outbreak is due to a West African clade virus, the viral sequence used in the research belongs to the more deadly Congo Basin clade.  

The monkeypox virus is quite large, with 197 kilobases, or kb, of DNA. The study, however, assembled less than one-third of the total genome —  a fragment that isn’t enough to produce a functional virus. The study’s authors stated in the paper that they limited their work to a fragment of the monkeypox viral genome specifically out of concerns for safety.  

“In this study, although a full-length viral genome would be the ideal reference template for detecting MPXV by qPCR, we only sought to assemble a 55-kb viral fragment, less than one-third of the MPXV genome,” the authors wrote, using shorthand to refer to the monkeypox virus. “This assembly product is fail-safe by virtually eliminating any risk of recovering into an infectious virus while providing multiple qPCR targets for detecting MPXV or other Orthopoxviruses.” 

No monkeypox virus was ever assembled in the study. 

 Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on social media. Our previous stories can be found here. Facebook has no control over our editorial content.


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