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Speculation about the origins of the novel coronavirus continues as Australian scientists insist the possibility it came from a lab can’t be ruled out.
In an effort to look for a potential vaccine, researchers at Flinders University and La Trobe University used computer modelling to better understand how the virus spreads and found it to be uniquely adapted for transmission to humans.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus, which results in the COVID-19 disease, binds to human cells more potently than any of the tested animal species using the computer modelling, including bats.
“Which argues against bats being a direct source of the human virus,” says lead author professor Nikolai Petrovsky.
In a paper published this month, but yet to be peer reviewed, the Australian scientists pointed to a number of reasons why the virus became so well adapted to humans, such as convergent evolution after exposure to human cells, rare mutations that mix two species genes, and exposure to human cells very early in the pandemic.
But they say it’s impossible, at this point, to rule out the hypothesis that is was created in a cell-culture experiment in a lab.
“What we are saying is that this virus looks for all the world like a virus designed specifically for humans – the only question is did this happen by chance, or intent,” Prof Petrovsky told Yahoo News Australia.
“Of course, we cannot say which but neither possibility can be excluded.”
It’s thought the coronavirus likely originated from bats and possibly moved to another animal before infecting humans. The earliest known outbreak strongly suggest that it took place at a wet market in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
The overwhelming scientific opinion to date supports the notion that the virus spread from animals to humans in a zoonotic event and was not manipulated or modified in a lab.
Earlier this year, research published in Nature concluded the virus was not man-made.
Even the United States Office of National Intelligence has ruled out COVID-19 being created in a laboratory, despite president Donald Trump pushing the unfounded theory last month.
“Many of our fellow scientists have published commentaries saying that the virus definitely did not come from a lab. I presume such claims are politically motivated, as they are not based on any scientific evidence or principles,” Prof Petrovsky told Yahoo News Australia via e-mail earlier this month.
“So how we differ from what these other scientists are claiming is that we cannot know how COVID-19 became so targeted at human receptors, without an enquiry as either option remains at least equally possible.”
Those two possibilities, he reiterated, are that it came from an exotic animal source or that “it was created and released from a laboratory either by natural selection on human cells or by direct genetic engineering.”
The latter theory suggest there was some level of human intervention which made the virus so potent to human cells.
Prof Petrovsky says he doesn’t dispute the science underpinning claims by other scientists that dispel the laboratory theory, such as those published in the journal Nature Medicine in March, which found the pathogen’s high suitability to binding with humans to most likely be the result of natural selection on a human or human-like ACE2 (enzyme), and precludes laboratory intervention.
“This inference could not be more wrong, as ‘natural selection on a human or human-like ACE2’ perfectly describes what is routinely done in the laboratories around the world including in Wuhan to force evolution of viruses in a particular direction by culturing them on human cells,” Prof Petrovsky said.
“We are just arguing for good science and open minds until we have definitive proof where this virus came from. After all it had to come from somewhere.”
Prof Petrovsky is calling for a comprehensive scientific inquiry into the origins of the virus.
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