A new study claiming that the coronavirus originated in a laboratory has been dismissed by scientists as “damaging” and lacking “any credibility”.
The study, which has not been peer reviewed, said the coronavirus’s biological characteristics are “inconsistent with a naturally occurring, zoonotic virus”.
It claims the evidence shows it “should be a laboratory product created by using bat coronaviruses” as a template or backbone, and calls for an investigation into research labs.
Among its authors is Dr Li-Meng Yan, who The Australian reported is a virologist who left China after studying the early COVID-19 outbreak.
Scientists said the evidence indicates that the coronavirus is “far more likely” to have occurred naturally and noted that the study has not been peer reviewed.
Dr Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, said: “This particular conspiracy around deliberate release form a laboratory has been doing the rounds throughout the pandemic.
“It has been rebutted several times already. Ultimately, it could be damaging to public health if reported uncritically without looking at the wider evidence.
“If people are exposed to and then believe conspiracy theories, this will likely have a negative impact on efforts to keep COVID-19 cases low and thus there will be more death and illness than there needs to be.”
Dr Gkikas Magiorkinis, assistant professor of hygiene and epidemiology at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, said that “closely related coronaviruses have been retrieved from animals such as bats and pangolins which makes the scenario of naturally occurring evolution far more likely than any scenario of laboratory manipulation”.
He added: “In fact we have clear history of zoonotic origin of lethal coronavirus outbreaks such as SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV.
“The paper by Li-Meng et al. does not provide any robust evidence of artificial manipulation, no statistical test of alternative hypotheses... and is highly speculative.”
Dr Andrew Preston, reader in microbial pathogenesis at the University of Bath, said the report “cannot be given any credibility in its current form”, that it “is not based on an objective interpretation of the SARS-CoV2 genome”, and its interpretations “are not supported by data”.
Meanwhile, Daniel Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial College London, said the study is “interesting, but perhaps an outlier opinion”.
“For my taste, the bulk of the data fit with the consensus that this is a virus transferred to humans from bats or pangolins, where one can find terribly similar coronaviruses,” he said.