Scientific evidence indicates virus that causes COVID-19 infection is of natural origin, not the result of human engineering

CLAIM
"evidence points to SARS-CoV-2 research being carried out at the Wuhan Institute of Virology"

SOURCE: , , , , 22 Feb. 2020  

DETAILS
Misleading: New directives by the Chinese government are in line with best practices enacted by scientific institutions around the world when handling new pathogens. These directives are not evidence of a biosecurity breach as claimed.
Unsupported: There is no evidence supporting claims that biosecurity is poor in the Wuhan Institute of Virology or that lab animals are being sold or consumed.
KEY TAKE AWAY
Multiple published scientific studies, based on genomic and phylogenetic analyses, show that the virus that causes COVID-19 has the strongest genetic similarity to coronaviruses isolated from bats living in the wild, pointing to its natural origin in wildlife. No evidence supports the claim that the COVID-19 outbreak is the result of a bioweapons leak from a Chinese laboratory.

FULL CLAIM: "The evidence points to SARS-CoV-2 research being carried out at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The virus may have been carried out of the lab by an infected worker or crossed over into humans when they unknowingly dined on a lab animal. Whatever the vector, Beijing authorities are now clearly scrambling to correct the serious problems with the way their labs handle deadly pathogens."

SUMMARY


This claim, which is based on an article published by the New York Post, states that the new coronavirus is the result of a leak in a Chinese laboratory, and has been repeated by outlets such as the Daily Wire and InfoWars, garnering more than 900,000 views altogether. Before this article was published, similar or identical claims were also made by multiple outlets, with many based on research findings that were not peer-reviewed and are of dubious validity. (Health Feedback covered several of these claims here, here, and here.)

Mosher’s argument is based on announcements made by the Chinese government and the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology in which China’s president, Xi Jinping, called for containment of the virus in a speech on 3 February 2020 and the Ministry “released a new directive” on improving biosafety measures. The writer of the original article in New York Post asserts that these announcements indicate that “China [is having] a problem keeping dangerous pathogens in test tubes where they belong”, and that “evidence points to SARS-CoV-2 research being carried out at the Wuhan Institute of Virology”, which he labeled a “bioweapons research lab”. He finally concludes by saying that “China has unleashed a plague on its own people.”

Infectious disease experts who are actively involved in the coronavirus outbreak response explained to Health Feedback that Mosher’s claims are inaccurate and misleading. Danielle E. Anderson, assistant professor and virologist at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore, and part of the team that developed the world’s first antibody test for COVID-19, said it is “simply false” to label the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) as a bioweapons research lab, adding that biosecurity at the institute is top-notch.

“I have worked in this exact laboratory at various times for the past two years,” she said. “I can personally attest to the strict control and containment measures implemented while working there. The staff at WIV are incredibly competent, hardworking, and are excellent scientists with superb track records.”

Anderson pointed out that there was nothing unusual about the Chinese ministry’s directive. “This sort of directive is something that is put in place immediately when dealing with a new pathogen”, she said. “I can guarantee that every research lab or hospital that handles the virus, virus derivatives, patients, or patient samples has drafted a similar mandate. I know that all the institutes that my work falls under have done so. It is a positive directive designed to enhance safety.”

Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, came to the same conclusion. “Any responsible government would strengthen safety and security procedures in high-containment# labs that will and should be working with the novel coronavirus to develop countermeasures and diagnostics.”

Overall, this claim is based on unsupported speculations and scientific inaccuracies. In spite of this, it continues to be perpetuated in many outlets and public officials, have real-world repercussions. Peter Daszak, epidemiologist and president of the EcoHealth Alliance who has collaborated with WIV researchers, warned during an interview with the journal Science: “These rumors and conspiracy theories have real consequences, including threats of violence that have occurred to our colleagues in China.”

The persistent spread of misinformation about the coronavirus prompted 27 eminent public health experts in the U.S., Europe, the U.K., Australia, and Asia to publish a statement in The Lancet on 19 February 2020 defending the integrity and response of China’s health professionals:

We have watched as the scientists, public health professionals, and medical professionals of China, in particular, have worked diligently and effectively to rapidly identify the pathogen behind this outbreak, put in place significant measures to reduce its impact, and share their results transparently with the global health community. This effort has been remarkable. […]

The rapid, open, and transparent sharing of data on this outbreak is now being threatened by rumours and misinformation around its origins. We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin. Scientists from multiple countries have published and analysed genomes of the causative agent, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2@) and they overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife[1,2,3,4,5,6,7] as have so many other emerging pathogens.

UPDATE (16 MAR. 2020):
After our evaluation was published, the Daily Wire revised the article’s original headline from “Report Suggests That Details Point To Coronavirus Coming From Chinese Lab” to “Report Promotes Debunked Theory That Coronavirus Comes From Chinese Lab”, and issued a correction notice, stating that: “This theory has been largely rejected by the global scientific community. The title has been revised to reflect that fact, and the article now includes a statement from a group of public health scientists condemning ‘conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.’” See the archive of the corrected article.

REVIEWERS’ FEEDBACK


Danielle E. Anderson, Assistant Professor, Duke-NUS Medical School:
To provide context for my opinion, I will disclose that I am a scientist trained to work in high containment and have collaborative projects with the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). I have worked in this exact laboratory at various times for the past 2 years. I can personally attest to the strict control and containment measures implemented while working there. The staff at WIV are incredibly competent, hardworking, and are excellent scientists with superb track records.

The article states: “Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology released a new directive entitled: ‘Instructions on strengthening biosecurity management in microbiology labs that handle advanced viruses like the novel coronavirus’” and then implies that this is an abnormal directive designed to fix a lab breach. On the contrary, this sort of directive is something that is put in place immediately when dealing with a new pathogen. I can guarantee that every research lab or hospital that handles the virus, virus derivatives, patients, or patient samples has drafted a similar mandate. I know that all the institutes that my work falls under have done so. It is a positive directive designed to enhance safety.

Designating the Wuhan Institute of Virology as “one of only two bioweapons research labs in all of China” is simply false, as is stating [that Maj. Gen. Chen Wei is] the “People’s Liberation Army’s top expert in biological warfare”. I don’t know where to start on this comment. Mentioning that “Maj. Gen. Chen has been researching coronaviruses since the SARS outbreak of 2003, as well as Ebola and anthrax” doesn’t even make her unique. Hundreds of scientists have that exact expertise. Swap “anthrax” with “Nipah virus” and that is also my CV.

One negative statement in the article is true, and that is the accidental infection with SARS (although surprisingly the article doesn’t greatly emphasize the only fact). The story can be found here.

The article claims that bats are not sold at the Wuhan market, so they could not be the source of infection. The author chooses to imply that these animals are not sold illegally at the market, yet has no problem implying that lab animals are illegally sold.

Overall, this is an appalling article.

Marc Lipsitch, Professor of Epidemiology, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health:
This article contains lots of circumstantial evidence put together in an inflammatory way. Any responsible government would strengthen safety and security procedures in high-containment labs that will and should be working with the novel coronavirus to develop countermeasures and diagnostics, etc. This hypothesis for its origin has been judged very unlikely by leading experts in viral evolution.

UPDATE (20 Mar. 2020):
An analysis published in Nature Medicine on 17 Mar. 2020 further supports our conclusion that the virus causing COVID-19 has a natural origin[8], stating that: “Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.” This publication has been added to our References.

NOTES

#: For a brief overview of different levels of biocontainment, please see this Public Health England website.
@: The virus responsible for COVID-19 has been named SARS-CoV-2. The World Health Organization explains that: “This name was chosen because the virus is genetically related to the coronavirus responsible for the SARS outbreak of 2003. While related, the two viruses are different.”

READ MORE

Similar or identical claims on the origins of the coronavirus have been fact-checked by multiple organizations, including PolitiFact, FactCheck.org and AAP FactCheck.

Health Feedback also fact-checked other inaccurate claims that the novel coronavirus was artificially modified:

We have published a number of other claim reviews on COVID-19. You can view them here.

REFERENCES

       

Published on: 05 Mar 2020 | Editor:

Health Feedback is a non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to science education. Our reviews are crowdsourced directly from a community of scientists with relevant expertise. We strive to explain whether and why information is or is not consistent with the science and to help readers know which news to trust.
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