SARS-CoV-2 does not come from any laboratory

For months the rumor has been buzzing around that the new type of coronavirus is not of natural origin, but man-made - as a kind of bio-weapon. Why is that not true

CLAIM: According to a survey, almost one in three Americans believes the coronavirus is a laboratory product - a large number of them even believe that the pathogen was deliberately bred.

EVALUATION: Scientists do not think this is plausible.

FACTS: In fact, there is still a lack of conclusive knowledge as to how exactly humans could originally have been infected with the new type of coronavirus. It quickly became clear: the pathogen is a type from the coronavirus group that has been known for decades. Experts have long known that these highly variable viruses can jump between animals and from animals to humans.

In the meantime, however, there has been scientific progress: In mid-March, researchers working with Swedish microbiology professor Kristian Andersen published their analysis of the corona family. In it, the team specifically investigated the question of whether the virus could have been produced artificially.

Coronavirus surface looks natural

To do this, they examined the spike proteins that protrude from the virus surface. The pathogen uses these spines to dock onto a host cell in the lungs or throat and penetrate them. The study shows in particular two important differences between Sars-CoV-2 and its relatives: Put simply, the protein has a different structure and a different composition of its amino acids.

The researchers emphasize that, based on the characteristics examined, the new virus can attack human cells particularly easily. However, the whole thing is not designed as optimally as one would expect from an artificially manufactured bioweapon. "This is strong evidence that Sars-CoV-2 is not the product of targeted manipulation," says the analysis.

For a bioweapon, other viruses would be more obvious

In addition, it is not at all understandable why Sars-CoV-2 should have been developed from a virus that has so far been harmless to humans and not from long-known dangerous corona relatives such as Mers or Sars. The scientists therefore consider a laboratory scenario to be implausible.

Experts assume it is of animal origin

For them, only natural transmission to humans is possible: Either the virus could have jumped over directly from bats or it could have used an intermediate animal host. However, it is still unclear whether Sars-CoV-2 mutated before that in such a way that it docks onto human cells more easily - or only later, when it may already have been circulating undetected among humans.

The Berlin virologist Christian Drosten and more than two dozen other researchers also strictly reject the theory of laboratory origin in an article from the beginning of March.

Place of origin still unclear

China's authorities see it as possible that the virus spread from the sale of wild animals on the Huannan market in the first affected metropolis of Wuhan. Many of the early cases of the infection were traced back to this market. Another study by Chinese scientists, however, considers it possible that the market was not the original source, but that the virus was dragged there from elsewhere.