• Medical workers at a coronavirus detection lab in Wuhan in central China's Hubei Province. (AAP)Source: AAP
The Trump administration is launching an investigation into the origin of SARS-CoV-2, so we asked the experts: was the coronavirus that caused COVID-19 made in a lab?
19 Apr 2020 - 3:03 PM  UPDATED 19 Apr 2020 - 4:37 PM

As the Coronavirus pandemic dominates the news, we are still learning new information about what it is, how it spreads, and what we can do to protect ourselves. With misinformation spreading as quickly as latest science on social media, it can be difficult to tell the difference.

To help separate fact from fiction, we've gathered together the latest answers to your questions from the experts in disease control and public health.

We've all seen the rumours about the laboratory origins of SARS-CoV-2, the type of coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 disease. But is there any truth to them? 

Professor Edward Holmes, an evolutionary virologist from the Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity at the University of Sydney, said he doesn't agree with the theory.

"There is no evidence that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans, originated in a laboratory in Wuhan, China," said Professor Holmes. "Coronaviruses like SARS-CoV-2 are commonly found in wildlife species and frequently jump to new hosts. This is also the most likely explanation for the origin of SARS-CoV-2."

Professor Holmes says the theory may have originated from the fact that a specific bat virus, RaTG13 - the closest known relative of SARS-CoV-2 - was kept at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

"There is some unfounded speculation that this virus was the origin of SARS-CoV-2," said Professor Holmes. "However, RaTG13 was sampled from a different province of China (Yunnan) to where COVID-19 first appeared, and the level of genome sequence divergence between SARS-CoV-2 and RaTG13 is equivalent to an average of 50 years (and at least 20 years) of evolutionary change."

Basically, SARS-CoV-2 couldn't have come from RaTG13.

"In addition, we know that viruses related to SARS-CoV-2 are also found in pangolins," said Professor Holmes. "This suggests that other wildlife species are likely to carry relatives of SARS-CoV-2."

According to Professor Holmes, everything we know about coronaviruses in wildlife strongly suggests that SARS-CoV-2 is of natural origin, not lab-made. 

Professor Nigel McMillan, the Director in Infectious Diseases and Immunology at Menzies Health Institute Queensland at Griffith University, agrees with Professor Holmes. 

"All evidence so far points to the fact the COVID-19 virus is naturally derived and not man-made," said Professor McMillan.

Professor McMillan points to a study that shows that the sorts of mutations found in the virus are natural and not human-made. 

"The genetic changes in the virus can be found in two other coronaviruses from bats and pangolins, and these are the source hosts. No system exists in the lab to make some of the changes found."

But not everyone agrees.

Professor Nikolai Petrovsky from the College of Medicine and Public Health at Flinders University and the Research Director at Vaxine, said the question of whether the virus might be the result of human intervention is "legitimate".

When the virus has been analysed, there hasn't been any evidence of easily recognisable human intervention found. 

"This been interpreted by some to mean this virus is not the result of human manipulation," said Professor Petrovsky. "However, this logic is incorrect as there are other ways in which humans can manipulate viruses."

Professor Petrovsky and a team of Australian researchers have been studying the virus' possible evolutionary origins by looking at how easily it bonds to humans compared to other animals. The final results of the study are expected to be released "shortly".

"The strength of binding of COVID-19 [to humans] far exceeds the predicted strength of its binding to [other species]," said Professor Petrovsky, adding that if humans had ever caught this virus before, it could explain why the bond is so strong - except we haven't.

"This either is a remarkable coincidence or a sign of human intervention. It is entirely plausible that the virus was created in the biosecurity facility in Wuhan."

"The cultured virus could have escaped the facility either through accidental infection of a staff member who then visited the fish market several blocks away and there infected others," said Professor Petrovsky, "or by inappropriate disposal of waste from the facility that either infected humans outside the facility directly, or via a susceptible vector such as a stray cat that then frequented the market and resulted in transmission there to humans."

Professor Petrovsky pointed out that the facts cannot be known at this time, but "the nature of this event and its proximity to a high-risk biosecurity facility at the epicentre of the outbreak demands a full and independent international enquiry to ascertain whether a virus of this kind of COVID-19 was being cultured in the facility and might have been accidentally released."

Associate Professor Hassan Vally, an Epidemiologist and Senior Lecturer in Public Health at La Trobe University, dismisses this as a "conspiracy theory".

"There is no substance to this claim and other conspiracy theories about the origin of COVID-19," said Associate Professor Vally. "We've been aware for some time that another coronavirus, like SARS and MERS before it, could cause a pandemic. So in many ways, the emergence of a new coronavirus with pandemic potential is not a surprise."

Associate Professor Vally said there is "absolutely no evidence to support the conspiracy theories being propagated by a few individuals", but there is evidence to support the natural emergence of the novel coronavirus.

"We have to be careful not to aid those irresponsibly using this global crisis for political point-scoring by giving any oxygen to these and other rumours."

Experts sourced from Scimex.

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