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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Miller, MD

Is COVID Manmade?

We are into this pandemic by over a year and we have learned an amazing amount about the virus in such a short time. Recall that when AIDS was first described in the early 80’s, it took three years to confirm that it was caused by a virus. The virus that causes COVID, called SARS-CoV-2, was identified in a mater of a couple of months. It took many more years of research to learn how the disease AIDS was caused by HIV. We already have a good understanding of how SARS-CoV-2 causes COVID. Of course, there are still many unanswered questions and much to learn. One unanswered question is exactly where did it come from? Was it engineered in a lab by humans or did it develop naturally? Was this the result of an accidental or intentional release from some viral lab somewhere?

I did biochemical research on the genes involved in brain tumors as my master’s thesis in graduate school before going to medical school. While I am not an expert at biochemical engineering, I do know enough to be able to understand the scientific articles coming out studying the genetics of this virus.

Genetic engineering uses techniques called gene splicing to insert, rearrange, modify, or delete genes from the DNA or RNA of an organism to change its properties. In order to gene splice, there original DNA or RNA strand has to be cut open and the new gene inserted. At each end of the new gene must be a manufactured sequence that sort of acts as “sticky ends” so that the inserted gene will become part of the original DNA or RNA. That “sticky end”, if you will, is very easy to detect and is a clear signature that the DNA or RNA has been altered by humans. SARS-CoV-2 contains no such “sticky ends” that would suggest human manipulation.

Another piece of compelling evidence is how closely related SARS-CoV-2 is to the SARS-CoV-1, the virus responsible for the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2002 to 2004. SARS and COVID are very similar diseases. The difference between the two viruses is only single nucleotide differences here and there. Nucleotides are the chemical building blocks of DNA and RNA. The order in which they are arranged codes for the genetic information. Human directed genetic engineering changes entire stretches of nucleotides and not single random ones. However, that is how natural mutation works, by random errors in the code when cells or viruses replicate and make new copies of their genes. This is very strong evidence that SARS-CoV-2 naturally evolved from either SARS-CoV-1 or that they both naturally evolved from the same parent virus in the past.

Thus, looking at what we know about SARS-CoV-1 can help us understand the origin of SARS-CoV-2 better. SARS-CoV-1 has been traced to horseshoe bats in a cave in China, that is about 1,000 miles southwest of Wuhan. It has been shown that the virus “jumped species” from the horseshoe bat to the Asian civet, a small mammal eaten as a delicacy in the region, and then jumped species to humans.

Species jumping is common, especially among coronaviruses and bats are a particularly significant source of new coronaviruses. It seems very likely that SARS-CoV-2 developed naturally along with its sister virus, SARS-CoV-1. That this occurred in the same region of China and that there was a similar intermediate species, perhaps the civet again, to humans.

So, it seems very unlikely that SARS-CoV-2 is human made. The far more likely explanation is that it naturally evolved.

However, the question remains, could it have been a leak from one of the two viral labs in Wuhan studying coronaviruses? First, it is not a coincidence that these labs were studying coronaviruses from bats. Viral labs are usually located in the area where such viruses exist. For example, a virology lab studying Ebola would be located in the region where Ebola is common. If Ebola then mutated into a new strain in that same region, would that be because that is where Ebola is already or because the lab is there? In other words, the presence of two virology labs studying bat related coronaviruses in the part of the world where most of the bat related coronaviruses are is not evidence that this was a lab leak. You would expect these labs to be there. So, the labs location in proximity to the outbreak is not evidence by itself one way or the other.

In next week’s Miller Report, we will look at virology labs and some of the evidence for and against this having been an accidental release from a viral experiment in one of those two labs in Wuhan.

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