NIH Director addresses rumor of COVID-19 lab origin

Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and a physician-geneticist, devoted a recent blog post to the Nature Medicine study debunking the rumor that the new coronavirus causing the current pandemic was engineered in a lab and deliberately released.

The international study, funded in part by the NIH and led by scientists from Scripps Research Institute and Tulane University School of Medicine, used sophisticated bioinformatic tools to compare publicly available genomic data from several coronaviruses, including the new one that causes COVID-19.

Collins cited two key findings that suggest the virus was not engineered in a lab.

First, the researchers found that the spike protein of the new coronavirus actually bound to ACE2 (angiotensin converting enzyme) far better than computer predictions, likely because of natural selection on ACE2 that enabled the virus to take advantage of a previously unidentified alternate binding site. They said this provides strong evidence that that new virus was not the product of purposeful manipulation in a lab. In fact, any bioengineer trying to design a coronavirus that threatened human health probably would never have chosen this particular conformation for a spike protein.

Their analysis also showed that the backbone of the new coronavirus’s genome most closely resembles that of a bat coronavirus discovered after the COVID-19 pandemic began. However, the region that binds ACE2 resembles a novel virus found in pangolins, a strange-looking animal sometimes called a scaly anteater. This provides additional evidence that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 almost certainly originated in nature; if it had been manufactured in a lab, scientists most likely would have used the backbones of coronaviruses already known to cause serious diseases in humans.

The study did not provide a precise answer about the virus's origins, but Collins noted that the authors proposed two possible scenarios:

In the first scenario, as the new coronavirus evolved in its natural hosts, possibly bats or pangolins, its spike proteins mutated to bind to molecules similar in structure to the human ACE2 protein, thereby enabling it to infect human cells. This scenario seems to fit other recent outbreaks of coronavirus-caused disease in humans, such as SARS, which arose from cat-like civets; and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which arose from camels.

The second scenario is that the new coronavirus crossed from animals into humans before it became capable of causing human disease. Then, as a result of gradual evolutionary changes over years or perhaps decades, the virus eventually gained the ability to spread from human-to-human and cause serious, often life-threatening disease.

Read the blog here: