by Peter Franklin
Thursday, 5
November 2020

Was the virus engineered?

by Peter Franklin
Credit: Getty

When Scientific American published an article entitled ‘Eight persistent COVID-19 myths and why people believe them’, number one on the list was “the virus was engineered in a laboratory in China.”

The author, Tanya Lewis, quoted from an intelligence agency press release: “the Intelligence Community… concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not man-made or genetically modified.”

That statement was from back in April. Is that scientific consensus quite so solid today?

Well, take a look at this: It’s an opinion piece for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) by David Relman of the Stanford University School of Medicine. It begins with one thing that we definitely do know, which is that there’s an awful lot that we don’t know:

We find ourselves ten months into one of the most catastrophic global health events of our lifetime and, disturbingly, we still do not know how it began.
- David Relman, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

He adds that efforts to investigate the origins of the virus “have become mired in politics, poorly supported assumptions and assertions, and incomplete information.”

To be clear, ReIman doesn’t have much time for the notion that the virus was deliberately engineered with the intention of releasing it to cause deliberate harm. However, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t engineered in order to better study samples found in the wild — for instance, by bringing together key features from different strains to investigate how they work in combination:

…there is probably more than one recent ancestral lineage that contributes to SARS-CoV-2 because its genome shows evidence of recombination between different parental viruses. In nature, recombination is common among coronaviruses. But it’s also common in some research laboratories where recombinant engineering is used to study those viruses.
- David Relman, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

To know for certain, we’d need to identify what Relman refers to as the “immediate parents” of SARS-CoV-2. And so far they’re missing.

Given that this vital evidence is not yet available, why the dogmatic statements that the virus was definitely not engineered?

Obviously, the origin issue has become highly politicised — not least in the rhetoric of Donald Trump. It was therefore important for the scientific and intelligence communities to remain objective — and not to be drawn into political spin, let alone outright conspiracy theories.

And yet, as with all things Covid, there is a danger of overkill — of ruling out all scenarios involving genetic engineering (or even anything involving a laboratory release) just because a subset of those scenarios (the most lurid and sinister of them) are implausible.

We should therefore welcome the fact that journals like PNAS are allowing reasonable possibilities to be raised and evidence-based investigation to be called for.

Perhaps, in the post-Trump era, that research can take place in a less febrile atmosphere — assuming of course, the Chinese government have the slightest interest in the truth being known.

Join the discussion

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