A tsunami of dubious reports about the deadly Wuhan coronavirus outbreak has been flooding the internet.
The newest of these was a little unusual because it was based on a pre-print of a real scientific paper uploaded to the website bioRxiv, where scientists can present their completed, or near-completed studies, prior to peer-review by other scientists. The work, by a group based in India, was entitled “Uncanny similarity of unique inserts in the 2019-nCoV spike protein to HIV-1 gp120 and Gag,” Forbes reported.
Seeing HIV and coronavirus in the same sentence is understandably a little startling, so what does it actually mean?
“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,” said Arinjay Banerjee, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in virology at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada who has extensively studied coronaviruses.
Some types of viruses can swap pieces of their genetic code and in this case, the authors of the study say that the specific coronavirus which is involved in the most recent outbreak (2019-nCoV) has four small chunks of sequence in its genetic code which are not found in other, similar coronaviruses like SARS. According to the authors, these pieces bear some resemblance to bits of sequence also found in HIV.
However, the authors then speculated that this might not be a coincidence and perhaps the bits of genetic code were put there intentionally. The conspiracy theory that the novel coronavirus was manufactured and escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ advanced biocontainment facility was addressed by one of its scientists, who rubbished the claims, according to the China Daily.
Shi Zhengl said on social media on Sunday that the virus 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.”
The wider scientific community, upon seeing the paper, were also less than impressed with the conclusions and speculations and swiftly set about not only voicing their concerns, but analyzing the data to double-check the results, Forbes reported.
Essentially, the scientists found that yes, there are some additions in the nCoV coronavirus originating in Wuhan that other coronaviruses don’t have, which are similar to pieces of sequence found in HIV. But, the kicker here is that these pieces of genetic code are also found in countless other viruses and there’s no reason to believe they specifically came from HIV, at all.
“The authors compared very short regions of proteins in the novel coronavirus and concluded that the small segments of proteins were similar to segments in HIV proteins. Comparing very short segments can often generate false positives and it is difficult to make these conclusions using small protein segments,” said Banerjee.
The paper was withdrawn from bioRxiv on Sunday afternoon with one of the authors stating: “ It was not our intention to feed into the conspiracy theories and no such claims are made here.” The author further declares that the researchers will revise the paper and re-analyze the data before submitting it again.
Meanwhile, The New York Times reported that the Wuhan virus is now likely to become a pandemic that circles the globe, according to many of the world’s leading infectious disease experts.
The virus is spreading more like influenza, which is highly transmissible, than like its slow-moving viral cousins, SARS and MERS, scientists have found.
“It’s very, very transmissible, and it almost certainly is going to be a pandemic,” said Dr Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.
“But will it be catastrophic? I don’t know.”