What the coronavirus genome says about its origin

One of the great mysteries of COVID-19 pandemic is the origin of the pathogen that caused it, the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Although several studies have repeatedly confirmed thenatural origin based on the structure of the virus, completely comparable to that of many other coronaviruses circulating in the bats, the surveys conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) did not lead to a clear and definitive answer, even though they considered the artificial origin to be “extremely improbable”. The hypothesis of creation / escape from a Chinese biosecurity laboratory however it still remains firmly on the table, continuing to gather more and more consensus especially among the American administration. “There is certainly the possibility that the pandemic began due to a laboratory accident”, the internationally renowned epidemiologist said in a hearing in the US Senate. Anthony Fauci, head of the anti Covid task force of the White House.

It is no coincidence that the new president himself Joe Biden, with the support ofEuropean Union, is preparing to officially ask the G7 (currently underway in Cornwall) for a new and in-depth investigation to the WHO, which this time will definitively shed light on the issue. “It is of the utmost importance to know the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus,” said European Commission President Ursula von Leyen. “You need full transparency to learn the lesson. We support all efforts to clarify: the world has a right to know exactly what happened. We will certainly support all efforts to have transparency ”, echoed the President of the European Council Charles Michel.

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Scientists are investigating the structure of the genetic sequences the pathogen since the start of the pandemic; it is precisely in these details that the answer to this enigma may lie. According to the experts, moreover, there are characteristics that suggest one or the other hypothesis. As explained to ANSA by Professor Gianguglielmo Zehender, professor of Hygiene at the State University of Milan, determining the exact origin of SARS-CoV-2 is a challenge: “At the moment there are not enough elements to support the hypothesis of ‘natural origin, as there are none to support the hypothesis of escape from a laboratory “, said the expert, adding that we are faced with something never seen before, with the pathogen that is adapting to its host under the eyes of all the world.

The fact that the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has a genetic similarity remarkable with other coronaviruses circulating in bats (equal to well the 96.2 percent in the case of RaTG13) and others that have caused disease in humans, such as those responsible for SARS e MERS, makes experts lean towards natural origin, through the so-called spillover. The problem is that in this case, a year and a half after the outbreak of the pandemic, the intermediate tank, the animal host that would have allowed the leap of species. For SARS it was zibetto and for MERS the dromedary, while for the virus responsible for COVID-19 it was thought above all to pangolin, without however finding definitive confirmations. However, Professor Zehender points out that for many infectious diseases the intermediate species between man and bat has not been found, therefore this lack is not enough.

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As indicated, an answer may lie in the depths of the SARS-CoV-2 genetic sequences. The analyzes of some amino acids they do not suggest either natural or artificial origin, however a particular characteristic of the proteina S O Spike (the “biological pick” used by the pathogen to attach to human cells) could indicate human manipulation of the structure: it is a binding site on the protein which is activated by a human enzyme (la furina) and which is not present on other coronaviruses. Nevertheless, Professor Zehender explains to ANSA, the virus is constantly changing precisely at the level of receptor binding site, therefore this adaptation could be the result of the adaptation of the coronavirus to humans.

“Given that everyone says that there is no definitive proof either for one hypothesis or the other, it seems to me that there is a certain justifiable persistence in the search for elements that indicate that the origin comes from a laboratory”, he explained the scientist, stating that the most serious problem is that of being taken by surprise by the pandemic, of the mistakes made during its management. Everyone’s hope is that the new WHO investigation called for by the G7 will indeed lead to a clear and definitive answer on the origin of the pathogen, even if extensive cooperation from China will be required.

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