Alarmist news stories claim the Wuhan coronavirus is genetically engineered to include pieces of HIV… it’s not
The global panic about the Wuhan coronavirus is palpable, so it is perhaps unsurprising that some bizarre stories about the virus’s origins are starting to spread.
But one of the most peculiar came in recent days in the form of a scientific paper published by Indian researchers. The paper – which has since been removed – was titled: “Uncanny similarity of unique inserts in the 2019-nCoV spike protein to HIV-1 gp120 and Gag.”
What does that mean, you might ask? Arinjay Banerjee, postdoctoral fellow in virology at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, told Forbes: “Based on analysis of multiple, very short regions of proteins in the novel coronavirus, the bioRxiv paper claimed that the new coronavirus may have acquired these regions from HIV.”
The claims about the Wuhan coronavirus and HIV have been rubbished by the wider scientific community.
The researchers essentially argue that the Wuhan coronavirus has four small chunks of sequence in its genetic code which bear resemblance to sequences found in the HIV virus. The most bizarre part is yet to come: the researchers then suggested that the Wuhan coronavirus may have been genetically engineered to include this genetic code.
Shi Zhengli, a scientist from the Wuhan Institute of Virology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, rubbished the claim, according to China Daily.
She said the Wuhan coronavirus was the result of “nature punishing the uncivilized habits and customs of humans” and she is willing to “bet my life that [the outbreak] has nothing to do with the lab.”
Many members of the wider scientific community have also slammed the paper. Silvana Konermann, assistant professor at Stanford, wrote on Twitter that “the similarity is spurious” when it comes to the similarities between the viruses.
Just checked their results. The similarity is spurious. Out of 4 inserts they identify between NCov and SARS, 2 are found in bat coronavirus. Of the remaining two, only one is most similar to HIV, and is so short (6 AA) that the similarity is not higher than chance given database
— Silvana Konermann (@SKonermann) January 31, 2020
The paper was self-published on the bioRxiv website, which allows researchers to share pre-print versions of papers before they are peer-reviewed.
The paper has been taken down, but the damage has already been done.
Following the controversy over the latest paper, the website now bears a warning telling people that the papers are “preliminary reports that have not been peer-reviewed.”
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“They should not be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice/health-related behavior, or be reported in news media as established information,” the warning added.
The paper has since been taken down, but it has already done some damage and gained traction, with some websites reporting on the unproven “link” between the Wuhan coronavirus and HIV.
In a comment, one of the authors of the study wrote: “While we appreciate the criticisms and comments provided by scientific colleagues at BioRxiv forum and elsewhere, the story has been differently interpreted and shared by social media and news platforms.
“We have positively received all criticisms and comments. To avoid further misinterpretation and confusions world-over, we have decided to withdraw the current version of the preprint.”