Coronavirus

Scientists dismiss theory that coronavirus was developed in Chinese labs

A research paper claiming to prove that the coronavirus was artificially developed in Chinese laboratories has been widely dismissed by mainstream scientists.

Scientists dismiss theory that coronavirus was developed in Chinese labs
Lauren DeCicca Getty Images

A research paper claiming to prove that the coronavirus was cooked up in a laboratory has been widely dismissed by mainstream scientists. Dr Li-Meng Yan and her team of researchers published a 26-page document laying out how Covid-19 could have been developed artificially in Chinese labs.

Li-Meng Yan, a Chinese virologist, has been in hiding in the US after claiming that the Chinese authorities not only knew about the novel coronavirus long before the first cases were officially reported in Wuhan last December, but who has also suggested Covid-19 was created in a Chinese military laboratory says that the worldwide pandemic the world is not of natural origin.

Yan and her team published their findings on Zenodo in a report entitled “Unusual Features of the SARS CoV-2 Genome Suggesting Sophisticated Laboratory Modification Rather Than Natural Evolution and Delineation of Its Probable Synthetic Route.”

Occured naturally

However scientists have hit back at the claims made in the document. Scientists say the evidence indicates that the coronavirus is “far more likely” to have occurred naturally and noted that the study has not been peer reviewed.

Dr Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, said: “This particular conspiracy around deliberate release from a laboratory has been doing the rounds throughout the pandemic. It has been rebutted several times already. Ultimately, it could be damaging to public health if reported uncritically without looking at the wider evidence. If people are exposed to and then believe conspiracy theories, this will likely have a negative impact on efforts to keep COVID-19 cases low and thus there will be more death and illness than there needs to be.”

The paper, which was posted online earlier this week says that “unusual features” of the virus’s genome suggest “sophisticated laboratory modification rather than natural evolution”. The authors allege that the modification of one or more bat viruses was carried out in a Chinese government laboratory in Wuhan.

Dr Gkikas Magiorkinis, assistant professor of hygiene and epidemiology at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, said that “closely related coronaviruses have been retrieved from animals such as bats and pangolins which makes the scenario of naturally occurring evolution far more likely than any scenario of laboratory manipulation”.

He added: “In fact we have clear history of zoonotic origin of lethal coronavirus outbreaks such as SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV.

“The paper by Li-Meng et al does not provide any robust evidence of artificial manipulation, no statistical test of alternative hypotheses... and is highly speculative.”

Dr Andrew Preston, reader in microbial pathogenesis at the University of Bath, said the report “cannot be given any credibility in its current form”, that it “is not based on an objective interpretation of the SARS-CoV2 genome”, and its interpretations “are not supported by data”.

Interesting study

Meanwhile, Daniel Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial College London, said the study is “interesting, but perhaps an outlier opinion”.

“For my taste, the bulk of the data fit with the consensus that this is a virus transferred to humans from bats or pangolins, where one can find terribly similar coronaviruses,” he said.

A former head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, told the Telegraph in June that he thought the pandemic “started as an accident” after the virus escaped a laboratory in China. "I do think that this started as an accident," Sir Richard told The Telegraph's new Planet Normal podcast. "It raises the issue, if China ever were to admit responsibility, does it pay reparations? I think it will make every country in the world rethink how it treats its relationship with China and how the international community behaves towards the Chinese leadership."

The paper was co-authored by Dr Li-Meng Yan, a self-styled whistle-blower from Hong Kong whose current affiliation is the non-profit Rule of Law Society and the Rule of Law Foundation, both in New York. The foundation, which was co-founded by US President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, says its mission is “to expose corruption, obstruction, illegality, brutality, false imprisonment, excessive sentencing, harassment, and inhumanity pervasive in the political, legal, business and financial systems of China”.

Yan did a series of media interviews in advance of the preprint being posted. She told the UK daytime TV show Loose Women that last year she was a medical doctor and PhD student at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) Medical Centre School of Public Health.

In December, she carried out a secret investigation of the new virus, that we now know as Covid-19. She claimed that in the course of her investigation, she discovered that it was caused by an unnatural coronavirus created in a Chinese government laboratory in Wuhan.

Fled the country

The University of Hong Kong has confirmed that Yan was a post doctoral fellow and has since left the university. In a statement, it said that Yan did not conduct research into the coronavirus at HKU, and distanced itself from her comments. She said she fled Hong Kong for the US in April after the Chinese government tried to make her “disappear”.

On September 15 2020, Yan's Twitter account was suspended, although the reason for the suspension was unclear. The account only had four visible posts on it, with one linked to the preprint paper that had not been peer reviewed.