A group of IIT Delhi researchers have asserted that the possibility that COVID-19 could have originated in a lab cannot be ruled out. "It is very hard to conclusively state whether this virus is of natural or lab origin, unlike the publications which state that it cannot be of lab origin," said the researchers, led by Prof Biswajit Kundu, in a statement after their preliminary study was withdrawn.
The group of scientists had conducted research on the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19 infection. They had initially published a preliminary article in the research journal BioRxiv. The paper laid out the possibility of the coronavirus originating from a lab. The research drew a lot of eyeballs and also criticisms. The paper titled "Uncanny similarity of unique inserts in the 2019-nCoV spike protein to HIV-1 gp120 and Gag" was later withdrawn. However, their findings have continued to make waves. The authors of the papers from KSBS, IIT Delhi and Acharya Narendra Dev College, University of Delhi, have now issued a statement to clarify their stance.
"In the earliest days of the COVID-19 emergency (pre-pandemic), we started our research aimed at understanding the uniqueness of this virus compared to its predecessor, the SARS-CoV-1, they said.
"To our surprise, we identified four small but unique insertions in the spike protein of this virus, while most other changes were substitutions. Interestingly, on further analyses, we found that three short inserts had similarity to the protein of similar function in some strains of HIV," the researchers have claimed. "In our analyses, the only virus genome which contained regions similar to all the four unique inserts was only HIV1, making us claim that these inserts are unique to SARS-CoV2 and not any other coronavirus," they added.
The researchers have stated that due to the COVID-19 emergency, they decided to bring their findings in front of the world as a pre-print. "The pre-print drew so much of media attention in a matter of hours and the way things got twisted in public domain in the form of 'Biowar' and 'Conspiracy theories' etc. that we got completely puzzled. Our intention was to simply place our findings so that researchers around the world take some clues and devise suitable remedial measures (vaccines, diagnostics, neutralising antibodies, etc)," they said.
"It was obviously a preprint and not a fully polished article. In view of all the criticisms, name calling and unprecedented negative publicity, we decided to withdraw the preprint and follow the peer-reviewed publication process," they said.
The scientists added that even though they incorporated all constructive criticisms received online in a revised manuscript, none of the journals were ready to consider the manuscript for peer-review "probably due to fear of negative publicity and deviations from the widely accepted views of the time".
"Our findings are only restricted to the observation that the appearance of 4 different stretches of amino acid sequences (how much ever short), in the host cell interacting proteins of two completely unrelated viruses is more than a mere chance event," the researchers stated.
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