Community Curiosity: Tracking the origins and evolution of COVID-19

For this edition of Community Curiosity, we’re calling an audible, and answering a question of our own. With some viral (pun intended) social media posts claiming that the novel coronavirus was genetically engineered in a lab and then accidentally or intentionally released, we thought we’d try our hand and some myth-busting.

Featuring University of Utah postdoctoral researcher Stephen Goldstein, who studies the evolution of viruses – including coronaviruses like SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19.

(Transcript follows. Audio at the bottom of the page)

Transcript

KCPW producer ROGER MCDONOUGH:
KCPW’s series Community Curiosities is our chance to answer questions you have about…well, just about anything.

This week, instead of answering a question submitted by a listener, we’re calling an audible. KCPW producer Tim Pierce has a topic for us to dig into.

KCPW producer TIM PIERCE:
Right. The past few weeks have seen a lot of, I guess you could call it speculation about the origins of the pandemic we’re living through. There’s a narrative out there, which you may or may not have seen, that the virus was genetically engineered and intentionally released.

ROGER:
Where’s that idea coming from, Tim?

TIM:
Well, people don’t like the idea that the virus sprang from (seemingly) nowhere. Our natural impulse is for stories and we want a simple story to tell about why this happened, even if it might not be that simple. And we want someone to blame. And then also there is this media report from a couple of weeks back. This is April 15th, and the speaker is Bret Baier, an anchor on the cable television network Fox News.

FOX NEWS ANCHOR BRET BAIER:
But there is a growing belief that the COVID-19 virus originated in the Wuhan lab, not as a bio weapon, but as China’s effort to find and deal with viruses to show the world China was as good as or better than the U.S. on that front.

TIM:
And, honestly, what Baier is saying here isn’t that it was genetically engineered as a bio-weapon, but that it escaped from the lab. So it’s slightly different than the more, I guess, nefarious conspiracy out there. Still, the notion that this is a secret plot, an intentional pandemic, is out there in memes and posts shared on facebook or in private groups.

However, that’s something US intelligence agencies are trying to dispel. The office of the Director of National Intelligence released a statement saying it agrees with the “wide scientific consensus” that COVID-19 has a natural origin.

The Trump Administration, though, is kind of promoting a different story. Here’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeio on ABC’s “This Week.”

SEC. of STATE POMPEIO:
There’s enormous evidence that that’s where this began. We’ve said from the beginning that this was a virus that originated in China. We took a lot of grief for that from the outset. But I think the whole world can see now. Remember, China has a history of infecting the world and they have a history of running substandard laboratories.

TIM:
So, again, there’s this story about the virus. And I keep seeing it duplicated in a number of other places. On Facebook, for example. But I’d like to get to the bottom of it. And what about that wide scientific consensus?

ROGER:
I’ve got just the guy for you, Tim.

STEPHEN GOLDSTEIN:
“Thanks for having me on. My name is Stephen Goldstein. I’m currently a post-doctoral researcher here at the University of Utah studying virus evolution including evolution of coronaviruses and other types of viruses. Before I was here in Utah I did my doctoral work at the University of Pennsylvania studying Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) coronavirus, which first emerged from animals into people in 2012, and is (before the SARS coronavirus 2 that causes COVID-19) the last coronavirus that we know of to jump from animals into people. Fortunately it has not caused a global pandemic but continues to sporadically cause cases in humans that can be quite serious.”

ROGER:
Tim, I knew Stephen was the right person to turn to for this, because I follow him on Twitter and earlier this week he had a thread on this very topic, where he pretty thoroughly explained what we know about where this coronavirus comes from. I played him those two clips – the Fox News clip and the statement from Secretary Pompeio. And then I asked him if the idea that the COVID-19 pandemic was created in a lab and was then released either intentionally or by accident…if that was plausible. Here’s what he said:

GOLDSTEIN:
So there are kind of two scenarios that have been conflated in a lot of ways, I think one is ‘has this virus been engineered in a lab in any way?’ And the answer to that, we can say unequivocally, is no. There have been some really nice studies since January when the genome sequence of this virus was first published by really fantastic evolutionary virologists. And we can really say unequivocally there are no signs that this virus was engineered or modified genetically in a laboratory. It’s clearly a virus that comes from the wild, that circulates naturally, almost certainly in bats. The second question is whether, you know, could a sample or an animal containing that virus have been collected in the wild? And one suggestion was infected, a researcher in the laboratory accidentally. And then that laboratory worker could have left the lab not knowing they’re infected and introduced this virus into the population. That’s something that we can’t explicitly rule out. But right now, there’s simply no evidence for that. And we have ample evidence and precedent for these types of viruses going from animals to people without any sort of lab accident happening through the normal course of life, which unfortunately includes a high frequency of interaction between humans and wildlife. And that’s really the major exposure point for us becoming infected by these viruses.
ROGER: 
Tim, so, to sort of break that apart: first Goldstein says, look, we know because of research done by evolutionary virologists – people looking at genetic markers in the virus as it evolves from host to host to host – we KNOW that it came from the wild, from bats; and that it hasn’t been genetically modified in a lab. And then the second part of what he says is: this is something we have a fair amount of precedent for. These coronaviruses have made the leap into humans before (see: SARS and MERS, etc). Part of what’s driving that is the interactions we’re having with wildlife as humans, but also the interactions we’re forcing between wildlife, in particular in the trade in wildlife that is happening in parts of China. Take a listen:

GOLDSTEIN:
We can take the example of the original SARS coronavirus outbreak in 2003 that with the benefit of hindsight that we’ll ultimately have with this virus, we understand quite a bit about how that virus entered the human population. And like this virus, SARS Coronavirus 2, the original SARS coronavirus was a bad virus. And what happened is through the combination or putting both wildlife and farmed animals or animals that are wildlife, but also get farmed, kind of like we have deer farms in the United States…putting these animals in close proximity you get the opportunity for viruses of those animals to cross species. The same way a bat virus can infect a person, a bat virus can infect, for example, a raccoon dog or an animal called a civic cat. And in 2003, we know that the SARS virus went from, in fact, bats to civet cats and raccoon dogs in these animal markets, these wet markets in China – and from there were able to infect people. And so I think the most likely scenario for SARS coronavirus 2 is that somehow this virus went from bats to another intermediate animal host and then probably from there into people. It’s possible that it went directly from bats into people. But kind of all these animals that don’t belong together get put together both in agriculture and in wildlife trafficking networks, which is where these pangolins were seized from. And so we’re kind of creating all these unnatural ecological interactions that create the potential for viruses to cross over from the species that they naturally infect – and are pretty harmless to those animals – into other species, including us.

ROGER:
Here’s the thing. These viruses and their hosts (say bats or pangolins or civet cats or whatever) they co-evolve over millions of years. And the virus, from an evolutionary perspective, doesn’t ‘want’ the host animal to die. It wants to just, live inside of it. And so after millions of years it doesn’t cause any disease in these animals. But we haven’t been co-evolving with it over millions of years. And so the right virus making the jump into humans has the potential to cause a pandemic. Something we’ve known about for a long time.

TIM:
So we knew in advance…but just didn’t take action?

ROGER:
There’s a whole section of my conversation with Stephen Goldstein on funding for scientific research and how it’s kind of ​reactive​ as opposed to ​proactive​ that I’m leaving out in the interest of time, but for now I’ll just say yes.

TIM:
I recently talked to a virologist from the University of Utah about chronic wasting disease. So if you want to learn more about the effects of scientific research being reactive instead of proactive, you can listen to that episode of in the hive on kcpw.org.

ROGER:
Nice plug Tim. But the truth is, a lot of research is being done on these viruses, and a lot of that research has been done in collaboration with Chinese scientists. And Goldstein says that he’s worried about the future of those collaborations because of, basically, politics.

GOLDSTEIN:
One of the things that I thought was particularly off the mark in the Fox News clip that we played was where he mentioned that it was thought that the Chinese researchers may have been working with these viruses to prove that they were as capable or more capable than the United States. In fact, the work with these viruses has been the subject of over a decade of collaboration between Chinese and American researchers and a lot of what we know about these bat coronaviruses – and the reason we knew that they were cause for concern – is because of really productive collaboration. If the ability for these collaborations to happen is chilled, we’re gonna lose out. China is going to continue to do this work, but they’re going to do it without us. And we have some great scientists that they can certainly benefit from. But the viruses are in China, so however great our scientists are, we can’t study them without collaborating with our Chinese colleagues. And we have some evidence that this is already happening. A group called Eco Health Alliance, which is a nonprofit organization based in New York that’s participated in a lot of these collaborations, finding bat coronaviruses in the wild just had its NIH grant canceled, really for for no clear reason, as far as I understand, they were not given any reason. Obviously, this kind of work has been politicized recently. I think that that grant in particular was brought up at a White House press briefing. So there are certainly concerns that politics are already starting to affect the kind of collaborations that we can have in the future.
TIM:
Science getting polticized is, I’ll just say it, ​stupid​.

But, getting back to where we ​started​ – that this whole pandemic came from a ​lab – that this [virus] was somehow engineered in a James-Bond-type subplot. We can pretty much discount that right?

ROGER:
Here’s Goldstein on that point, just before we got off our Zoom call on Tuesday.
GOLDSTEIN

TIM:
That’s pretty definitive.

ROGER:
I’d say so, yeah.

Thanks very much to Stephen Goldstein, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Utah who studies virus evolution – and in particular coronavirus evolution. Thanks Stephen.

TIM:
This has been another KCPW Community Curiosity. Submit your own questions for us to answer at kcpw.org/curiosity

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