An electron microscope image of the new strain of coronavirus. Courtesy National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Scripps Research in La Jolla is helping to debunk a conspiracy theory that the new coronavirus strain causing a world pandemic came from a laboratory or was otherwise engineered.

A paper published Tuesday in the journal Nature Medicine shows that SARS-CoV-2 — the official name for the strain of coronavirus behind COVID-19 disease — is the product of natural evolution.

“By comparing the available genome sequence data for known coronavirus strains, we can firmly determine that SARS-CoV-2 originated through natural processes,” said Kristian Andersen, an associate professor of immunology and microbiology at Scripps Research and lead author on the paper.

In addition to Andersen, authors on the paper, “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2,” include Robert F. Garry of Tulane University; Edward Holmes of the University of Sydney; Andrew Rambaut of the University of Edinburgh; and W. Ian Lipkin of Columbia University.

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that can cause illnesses ranging widely in severity. The first known severe illness caused by a coronavirus emerged with the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in China. A second outbreak of severe illness began in 2012 in Saudi Arabia with the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). The outbreak of the new strain of coronavirus causing severe illness now was first reported on Dec. 31.

In their article, the scientists explain that if SARS-CoV-2 was an engineered virus, it would have been based on the earlier deadly versions. But it fact it differs substantially from the already known coronaviruses and mostly resembles related viruses found in bats and pangolins, armadillo-like mammals living in Asia and Africa.

Two features of SARS-CoV-2 — spike proteins that are effective at binding with human cells and its overall molecular structure — point to natural origin.

“These two features of the virus, the mutations in the RBD portion of the spike protein and its distinct backbone, rules out laboratory manipulation as a potential origin for SARS-CoV-2” said Andersen.

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Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.