Coronavirus cases worldwide recently reached the two million mark, with the US having the most number of cases with 644,089. This is followed by Spain (180,659), Italy (165,155), France (147,863), Germany (134,753), the UK (98,476), and China (82,295). The current death toll in all affected countries is at 134,603 while recoveries are at 510,053. Worldometers.info reported that COVID-19 is now affecting 210 countries and territories across the world.
While the virus has already infected more than two million people across the world, there’s still a lot of mystery surrounding it. Most of us know that the pandemic began in Wuhan, a city in the Hubei province of China. Reports of the first COVID-19 cases started in December 2019. COVID-19 is a newly discovered coronavirus that can cause disease in both animals and humans. One type of coronavirus previously spread in many countries in 2002-2003: the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus.
Unfortunately, it remains unclear exactly how the virus first spread to humans. Early reports trace the earliest cases back to a seafood and animal market in Wuhan. Scientists, therefore, concluded that it may have been from there that COVID-19 started to spread to humans. However, new research may have found evidence that can prove a prominent rumor: COVID-19 first escaped from a lab in Wuhan studying bat coronaviruses and then spread to the public.
Early Studies Reveal Virus Appears to Have Come from Wild Animals
Last February, a group of prominent public health scientists wrote a letter that debunks rumors suggesting a laboratory in Wuhan, China may be the origin of the outbreak of COVID-19. This is after speculations circulated all over social media that included the possibility that the virus was bioengineered at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. According to Science Mag, the said institute was singled out for its intense scrutiny. It has a lab at the highest security level—biosafety level 4—and its researchers study coronaviruses from bats. This includes the one that is closest to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
“The rapid, open, and transparent sharing of data on this outbreak is now being threatened by rumors and misinformation around its origins,” the scientists said.
A scientific paper has studied this ‘conspiracy theory’. Kristian Andersen, an associate professor of immunology and microbiology at Scripps Research, and colleagues compared the genome of this novel coronavirus, provided by Chinese scientists, with the seven other coronaviruses known to infect humans such as SARS, MERS, and SARS-CoV-2, which can cause severe disease; along with HKU1, NL63, OC43, and 229E, which typically cause just mild symptoms.
According to Science Daily, an American website that aggregates press releases and publishes lightly edited press releases about science, the researchers analyzed the genetic template for spike proteins. They specifically looked at the gene sequences responsible for two key features of these spike proteins such as the so-called cleavage site that allows the virus to open and enter those cells and the grabber, called the receptor-binding domain, that hooks onto host cells. The team found out that the receptor-binding domain of the SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins had evolved to effectively target a molecular feature on the outside of human cells called ACE2, a receptor involved in regulating blood pressure. The spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 was so effective at binding the human cells that the scientists concluded it was the result of natural selection and not the product of genetic engineering.
"Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus," they said.
The scientists also based their conclusion on SARS-CoV-2's overall molecular structure. They found out that its backbone wasn’t constructed from the backbone of a virus known to cause illness. If it is indeed true that the virus was bioengineered, scientists should have constructed it as a virus that can make people sick. Instead, the SARS-CoV-2's overall molecular structure differed substantially from those of already known coronaviruses and mostly resembled related viruses found in bats and pangolins.
"These two features of the virus, the mutations in the RBD portion of the spike protein and its distinct backbone, rule out laboratory manipulation as a potential origin for SARS-CoV-2,” Andersen said.
According to Live Science, a science news website that features groundbreaking developments in science, space, technology, health, the environment, our culture and history, one of the two possible origins of the virus is that we contracted the virus directly from an animal. Many researchers suggested that it was a bat, which transmitted the virus to another intermediate animal (possibly a pangolin, some scientists have said) that brought the virus to humans. Another possible scenario is that a pangolin either directly or indirectly passed its virus onto a human host.
Chinese Scientists Said COVID-19 Was Bioengineered
China has a history of censoring information and changing the narrative of any issue involving them. An expert believes that this is what actually happened with the origins of COVID-19.
Steve Mosher, an American China expert, said that a recent Chinese research paper showed how the coronavirus originated from a Wuhan bio lab and not from bats being sold at the market. The early findings have just been censored by the Chinese government. The said paper was written by Botao Xiao as well as Lei Xiao from the South China University of Technology. The researchers confirmed that the virus came from an animal known as intermediate horseshoe bats but it couldn't have come from the Wuhan market.
“First, they point out there are no known colonies of this species of the bat within 90 kilometers—that’s 56 miles—of Wuhan. Second, they diligently interviewed 59 people with connections to Wuhan and each and everyone confirmed there were no [horseshoe bats] being sold there,” Mosher said.
According to the Science Times, an online site providing the latest research, discoveries and scientific breakthroughs for science enthusiasts, the researchers were able to trace the virus to two different Wuhan institutes. First was the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention (WHCDC), which is within 280 meters from the Wuhan market. WHCDC hosted animals in laboratories for research purposes, one of which was specialized in pathogen collection and identification. Another was the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which is located seven miles away. The lab was reportedly researching the same bats.
The paper titled “The Possible Origins of the 2019-n-CoV coronavirus” was published last February but was quickly censored by Chinese authorities and disappeared online. Mosher, however, said that the paper was saved and made available by some sites. According to Lifestyle.Inq, an online site providing original and exclusive content, the researchers found out that one WHCDC study used 155 horseshoe bats captured from Hubei province and 450 bats captured from Zhejiang province.
“They concluded that the first case of a human having contracted the virus was probably a bio lab worker from the WHCDC or WIV who accidentally exposed himself to blood or urine from a bat and infected himself. They also suggested that infected tissue samples from research animals, or the animals themselves, may have wound up in the wet market,” Mosher said.