A study has not claimed the new coronavirus was ‘genetically engineered for efficient spread in humans’

11th Mar 2020

Claim

Coronavirus may have been genetically engineered for “efficient spreading in the human population,” a bombshell new study has claimed.

Conclusion

This is wrong and the study does not claim the new coronavirus has been genetically engineered. It simply compares the genome sequence of SARS-CoV-2 with other coronaviruses, and suggests a reason why it might be spreading relatively efficiently.

“Coronavirus may have been genetically engineered for the “efficient spreading in the human population,” a bombshell new study has claimed.”

Daily Express, 10 March 2020  

This week the Daily Express claimed a study found the new coronavirus may have been genetically engineered to spread in the human population. Another Daily Express article about the new coronavirus, published on 11 March, repeated the claim that the study “suggested Covid-19 has been tampered with”.

This is incorrect. A new study has not claimed that the virus that causes Covid-19 may have been genetically engineered to spread more efficiently among humans. The Daily Express was wrong to report to this, and a number of virology experts have heavily criticised its claim.

Since this article was first published we approached the Daily Express, asking them to correct the article. They have since edited the piece and added a correction note.

The study doesn’t suggest the new coronavirus was deliberately tampered with

Genetic engineering refers to the deliberate alteration of the genetic makeup of an organism by humans.

The study, published in the journal Antiviral Research, compared the make-up of the new coronavirus with that of other existing coronaviruses, such as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome).

It suggested that SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) may be more efficient at spreading between humans because of a difference in its DNA. The Daily Express incorrectly reported that the study “suggests that this part of the DNA chain has been tampered with” to increase the efficiency of infection among humans. This suggestion is not made anywhere in the study.

The study did find that SARS-CoV-2—referred to by its former name 2019-nCoV in the report—has a similar genome sequence to other coronaviruses. However, it also has a noticeable difference in the form of a “peculiar furin-like cleavage site” which has not been seen in other coronaviruses.

Furin is a protein found in humans and animals which can be exploited by viruses like coronavirus, HIV and Ebola to help them spread by activating the proteins which hold the virus, and are contained in “cleavage sites”.      

The study said the “furin-like cleavage site” in SARS-CoV-2 “may provide a gain-of-function to the 2019-nCov for efficient spreading in the human population” compared to other coronaviruses.

In simple terms, this means that the presence of this site in the virus could be the reason why it is infecting so many people. However, the study makes absolutely no suggestion that the virus has been “genetically engineered” to cause this.

Experts have criticised the findings from the Express

We spoke to the Science Media Centre who asked experts what they made of the paper’s claim.

Professor Ben Neuman, chair of biological sciences at Texas A&M University-Texarkana and visiting associate professor at the University of Reading, said: “The Daily Express’s take is not based on science and appears to be rather inflammatory.”

“All the furin-like cleavage site tells us is that this virus probably comes from another animal with a furin-like enzyme in its lungs, which includes pretty much any mammal or bird that you could name.

“The paper makes no such claim about tampering—it is referring to the process of evolution in general.”

Professor Wendy Barclay, chair in influenza virology at Imperial College London, said there is “convergent evolution” present in SARS-Cov-2 but “by genetic engineering design there’s just no way scientists would have known how to achieve this.”

“The [Express] article has not really gone into the science in a way that can give the balanced argument,” she said, adding that most data so far “strongly support the idea that the novel coronavirus emerged through natural recombination and evolution of coronaviruses of bats.”

Dr Michael Skinner, reader in virology at Imperial College London, said experts “recognise this kind of mutation as common in the natural evolution of viruses”, particularly those like coronaviruses.

Update 12 March 2020

We updated this piece when the Express edited their article and added a correction note.

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