Data on the artificiality of COVID-19
What do Russian scientists think about this
Anton Kass, NEWS.ru
A group of researchers from Germany published a study in which they say that the coronavirus was most likely created artificially. The scientists draw their conclusions based on the study of suspicious details of the SARS-CoV-2 genome. One of the authors of the work, Doctor of immunology Valentin Bruttel, claims that the pathogen "is 99.9% artificial, probably a manipulated copy of a natural virus." However, as I found out NEWS.ru not all scientists agree with the conclusions of German researchers, believing that the evidence is "far-fetched", and previously similar hypotheses have already been rejected by the scientific community. At the same time, it is not yet possible to find out about the origin of the COVID-19 pathogen, since China, where the pandemic began, does not allow for a full-scale investigation.
A few days ago, a preliminary publication appeared on the Web (a preprint that did not pass scientific review) by German scientists Valentin Bruttel, Alex Washburn and Antonius Van Dongen, in which they indicate that SARS-CoV-2 is a "genetically modified virus" (Bruttel et al., Endonuclease fingerprint indicates a synthetic origin of SARS-CoV-2).
Valentin Bruttel claims that in the summer of 2021 he noticed the first anomalies in the coronavirus genome, after which he began to study them. According to him, "this virus is 99.9% artificial, probably a manipulated copy of a natural virus."
As told NEWS.ru molecular biologist and academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences Sergey Netesov, any viral genome can be changed by genetic engineering manipulations. This became possible 35 years ago, although the first such methods were very complex, multi-stage and possible only in large laboratories for scientists with primitive bioinformatic methods and experimental skills in this field.
In 2003, a DNA copy of the RNA genome of the polio virus was completely chemically synthesized in the laboratory under the leadership of American scientist Eckard Wimmer. Next, the DNA copy was turned into RNA, and RNA by transfection of mammalian cells into a living virus. Thus, Wimmer proved that the virus can be recreated purely chemically, without involving any biological "blanks" and proving the chemical nature of viruses," Netesov explained.
He recalled that back in 1984, the first scientific article was published on manipulations with virus genomes. Most of the manipulation attempts were then made to obtain vector vaccines similar to Sputnik V or other coronavirus vaccinations produced by Johnson & Johnson and Oxford Astra Zeneca. In the late 1980s, similar vaccines began to be developed to replace "live" (based on inactivated viruses). But three decades ago, as Netesov explains, "classical virologists who determined the weather in the regulatory bodies of the ministries of health of different countries were very conservative."
They unanimously argued: "We do not need genetically modified viruses, we will allow only those obtained by traditional methods of the 1930s — 1950s." But it would take decades to get live vaccines using classical methods. But vector and mRNA vaccines, also in general, genetically engineered, from SARS-CoV-2 were actually made in a quarter. So the genetic engineering technique is very fast and progressive," the interlocutor continued NEWS.ru .
According to Sergey Netesov, the article by German researchers "adds another "brick" in favor of the version that the current coronavirus that emerged in 2019 is a "leak" from the laboratory in which it was synthesized." The first such hypotheses, the scientist recalled, appeared in the summer of 2020. They were based on the fact that for six months since the beginning of the pandemic, researchers have not found a natural precursor of SARS-CoV-2, as it has not been found until now. The situation was completely different with the SARS-CoV SARS-pneumonia virus of 2003, the precursor of which was found "literally within one to three months."
Then each step of research added confidence that we are talking about a natural virus, because the genome of the natural precursor of SARS-CoV was 99.99% similar to it, Netesov continued, and the "natural" virus closest to SARS-CoV-2 is similar to it by only 96% and 4% difference. — this is "fantastically much".
In the same article, the German authors mention the fact that in the genus of beta-coronaviruses, to which SARS-CoV-2 belongs, the S-protein of no virus, except for this, has a cleavage site (a genetic element, also called a restriction site. — NEWS.ru ), recognized by the cellular protease furin (an enzyme that cleaves protein. — NEWS.ru). The natural appearance of the "insert" encoding this site in 12 nucleotides (organic compounds. — NEWS.ru) an extremely unlikely event. Initially, it was thought that SARS-CoV-2 acquired this insert along with the end of the S-protein gene from the pangolin coronavirus (lizard squad. — NEWS.ru ), but no furin cleavage site was found in the S-protein of the pangolin coronavirus. So the hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 can be artificially obtained is finding more and more confirmations starting from the spring-summer of 2020," said Sergey Netesov.
He recalled that in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the COVID-19 pandemic began at the end of 2019, there is the Wuhan Institute of Virology with laboratories, including the higher biological protection BSL4, which began work in 2017. It was there that scientists worked with coronaviruses, including genetic engineering methods, these researchers have dozens of publications on natural viruses of this type.
Laboratories of the USA, Switzerland and other countries collaborated with the Wuhan Scientific Center, Netesov noted. Contracts were concluded between them for the design and study of the properties of recombinant, that is, artificial, coronaviruses, and these studies were aimed, among other things, at simulating natural evolution (the so-called Gain-of-Function Research). The Chinese side was supposed to prepare reports for 2019, 2020 and 2021, but it has not yet submitted them to either the American side or the WHO, the interlocutor emphasizes NEWS.ru .
Currently, as Sergey Netesov said, this situation is being investigated by several groups of scientists. For example, a year ago, WHO created the second international commission to study the origin of the current coronavirus. But its participants have not yet been given permission to enter Wuhan, nor have they provided any reporting materials on those grants that were funded by the United States.
A similar investigation was started by the US Senate, where once a quarter there are hearings of researchers' reports. At the last meeting in early August, two of the three speakers (this, as the interlocutor notes NEWS.ru , well-known American virologists) hypothesized that SARS-CoV-2 "with a very high probability can be artificially created."
These scientists did not participate in joint grants with the Chinese side, and those who participated still insist that this is a natural option. But there is no answer to the question of where the natural source of the virus is," Sergey Netesov stressed.
He believes that the German researchers "did not make some phenomenal discovery, but simply noticed a number of features in the genomes of the SARS-CoV-2 virus strains, which independently suggest its unnatural origin due to the presence of possible "crosslinking" of fragments of the coronavirus genome." As a result, the interlocutor explained NEWS.ru , the authors of the publication "received another indirect proof that, apparently, the original strain was constructed."
"Extreme" point of view
Vasily Vlasov, MD, member of the Russian Academy of Sciences Commission on Combating Pseudoscience and President of the Society of Evidence-Based Medicine, doubts the conclusions of German researchers.
This is an extreme point of view in the sense that people who approach the analysis of this virus from the molecular side can never assert (at least, so far it has been thought) something definite. That is, it cannot be said that some features of this virus are and can only be artificial and cannot arise naturally. As is known, suspicions that these features could have arisen artificially exist literally from the very beginning [of the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in the human population]. I think that this kind of research will continue, we can only wait for their results. In the meantime, it should be remembered that conclusions and versions regarding the "artificiality" of the virus or, for example, its accidental, and not even a special appearance from the laboratory, — all these versions can really be revealed only by investigation methods that are characteristic of investigators, even with the participation of scientists, - Vlasov stressed in an interview with NEWS.ru .
At the same time, he added that the Wuhan laboratory, which Sergey Netesov told about, is "the most likely candidate both for creating such a virus there and for its "escape" from there." But, according to Vlasov, all the objects for studying the version of the origin of SARS-CoV-2 are in China, which makes the prospects of an investigation "extremely unlikely."
Molecular biologist and popularizer of science Irina Yakutenko, in turn, believes that today it is impossible to prove that the virus was created artificially, because "the same changes that could have been created in the laboratory could have appeared naturally during evolutionary selection."
The evolution of viruses is just going to create some tricky strains that show maximum success. Therefore, no analysis of the genome, restriction sites, inserts or anything else can give an unambiguous answer to the question of where these changes originated from. Such an answer could be given by a police investigation, but China has clearly and unequivocally made it clear that it will not allow any UN missions into its laboratories and there will be no investigation into the origin of the virus. We will not know where the coronavirus came from, although the answer to the question about the origin of SARS-CoV-2 could be given by an analysis of laboratory logs and conversations with its employees. And looking at the virus itself, it is impossible to conclude where it came from," Yakutenko says.
The statements of Valentin Bruttel and his colleagues that "the virus is 99% or 89% artificial, according to the interlocutor NEWS.ru , "are not wealthy in any way and there is no scientific way to prove the probability of this with such accuracy." Irina Yakutenko added that this is not the first attempt to prove the laboratory origin of the virus, based on the analysis of the genome, which was allegedly assembled artificially.
The idea of the authors of the new article is that restriction sites are somehow very suspiciously located in the SARS-CoV-2 genome, and from these pieces you can assemble a de novo virus. But there is clearly not enough evidence in this work, and they are very far-fetched. There are a huge number of restriction sites in the body of any living being, and some sequence will surely be recognized by some enzymes. In this work, a pair of enzymes was selected, on the basis of which the analysis is carried out," Yakutenko explained.
She suggested that the German researchers "want to prove what they assume in advance, and have been looking for a long time for which restrictions fit their initial hypothesis, but much more data is needed to prove it."
Anomaly in question
Biologist and publicist Alexander Panchin was also skeptical about the conclusions of Valentin Bruttel, Alex Washburn and Antonius Van Dongen. In his opinion, their theory is "not consistent at all."
There are enzymes that can recognize certain DNA sequences and cut them. If we take the genome of any virus, then we can find such sequences that will be recognized by one or another enzyme and cut. The authors say that the SARS-CoV-2 genome has a suspicious pattern of cutting its genome with a specific pair of such enzymes. It was as if someone was trying to piece it together from fragments that would be obtained if the coronavirus genome was cut with these enzymes. What is the suspicion? Are the sections cut by these enzymes larger or smaller than usual? No. Are these incision sites in suspicious places like the edges of the spike protein gene? Not either," Alexander Panchin said in a comment NEWS.ru .
He noted that, according to the authors of the article, the suspicion lies in the fact that "this pair of enzymes cuts the SARS-CoV-2 genome into fragments not exceeding a certain length." Punchin explained that German researchers "came up with" such a measure of the "artificiality" of the virus, because supposedly "genetic engineers would not use too long fragments, they need shorter ones, but not too numerous." And on this basis, the SARS-CoV-2 genome, according to Bruttel and his co-authors, is abnormal, the interlocutor added NEWS.ru .
True, according to their own data, there are natural coronaviruses that are even more abnormal on this basis than SARS-CoV-2, but this is so, little things. In addition, the choice of a particular pair of enzymes is interesting. It is not dictated by the fact that such a pair of enzymes is used by genetic engineers most often. And with what? Who knows. Yes, such enzymes, like many others, are used by genetic engineers. But if you take other enzymes, no anomaly is likely to work. But the authors conduct their statistical calculations in such a way as if no other enzymes exist. This approach is called cherry-picking ("skimming"), and the analysis needs correction for multiple comparisons, which is not there," explained Alexander Panchin.
According to him, "absolutely all sections of the genome cutting by the enzymes indicated by the authors are found in certain coronaviruses of natural origin related to SARS-CoV-2, which were discovered much later, and, as a result, are present in the reconstructed genome of the common ancestor of SARS-CoV, SARS-CoV-2 viruses and their relatives". That is, Alexander Panchin continued, "somehow, the alleged genetic engineers, when creating SARS-CoV-2, inserted enzyme recognition sites exactly in the places where they occur in natural viruses that had not yet been detected at that time."
Panchin also added that many versions of the artificial creation of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus have been proposed, but none has yet been confirmed. And the position of German researchers is "no better than the previous ones, but in some sense worse, since it strictly contradicts empirical data."
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