With arguments continuing to rage worldwide over the precise origin of the new coronavirus, a team of Australian scientists has produced evidence confirming that it may indeed have been created in a laboratory. Led by Professor Nikolai Petrovsky from the College of Medicine and Public Health at Flinders University, the team examined the ability of the virus to bind to a specific enzyme (ACE2) that enables it to infect cells. They found it binds far more effectively to the human version of this enzyme than to that of other animals. Describing their discovery as “particularly surprising”, they say a virus would typically bind better to a receptor in its original host species, such as a bat, and that it would have a lower initial binding ability in its new host, in this case humans. Commenting on the finding, Professor Petrovsky says: “In the absence of evidence of historic human infections with this virus…this either is a remarkable coincidence or a sign of human intervention.”
Describing how the coronavirus has close similarities to ‘Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome’ (SARS) and other bat viruses, Petrovsky points out that no natural virus matching it has been found in nature despite an intensive search to find its origins. He says this raises “the very legitimate question” of whether it might be the result of human intervention. While analyses of the virus’ genomic structure do not reveal any artificial gene inserts, Petrovsky questions the conclusion that the absence of these means it is not the result of human manipulation. “This logic is incorrect,” he says, “as there are other ways in which humans can manipulate viruses”.
Citing an example, Petrovsky says if you take a bat coronavirus that is not infectious to humans, and culture it with cells that express the human version of the enzyme ACE2 (angiotensin-converting enzyme 2), you can force the bat virus to adapt to infect human cells. He says this “would have the effect of increasing the strength of its binding to human ACE2, and inevitably reducing the strength of its binding to bat ACE2.”
“The result of these experiments,” he says, would be “a virus that is highly virulent in humans but is sufficiently different that it no longer resembles the original bat virus.”
Petrovsky believes it is “entirely plausible” that the new coronavirus was created in the biosecurity facility in Wuhan, the city in China where it was first identified. This laboratory is known to have been the site of considerable bat coronavirus research. Petrovsky suggests that “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, 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.”
Petrovsky argues that the nature of this event and its proximity to a high-risk biosecurity facility at the epicenter of the outbreak demands “a full and independent international enquiry” to ascertain whether a virus of this kind was being cultured in the facility and might have been accidentally released. He and his team conclude in their scientific paper that determining the origins of the pandemic “will be of paramount importance to help prevent any similar human coronavirus outbreak in the future.”