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Coronavirus conspiracy debunked by Wuhan researcher

By Zhang Zhihao | | Updated: 2020-02-02 19:29
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A scientist from the Wuhan Institute of Virology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences has debunked a recent conspiracy which claimed the novel coronavirus was manufactured and escaped from the institute’s most advanced biocontainment facility.

Shi Zhengli, a researcher from the institute, said on her social media on Sunday the virus was the result of "nature punishing the uncivilized habits and customs of humans", and she is willing to "bet my life that [the outbreak] has nothing to do with the lab."

Shi was the leading scientist who made the discovery the novel coronavirus can enter cells through ACE2 receptors and may have originated from bats.

Her comments came after Indian scientists recently published a non-peer reviewed paper suggesting scientists had artificially inserted genes from the HIV virus into the coronavirus, thus making it susceptible to anti-HIV treatments.

The paper was immediately panned by experts around the world and retracted from biology journal server bioRxiv on Sunday.

In a Twitter post commenting on the paper, David Liu, a chemistry professor from Harvard University, said: "The mere claim that such short inserts support nCoV origins ‘unlikely to be fortuitous in nature’ is already highly suspect."

"This is a classic case of searching for lost keys only under a lamppost," he said. "A fearful world does not need to fuel conspiracy theories with bad analyses."

However, the Indian article was widely cited by conspiracy media outlets as proof Chinese scientists had engineered the virus and it escaped from the institute’s biosafety level-IV laboratory, a facility with the highest biohazard precaution standards designed to contain and study the world’s most dangerous pathogens, including Ebola, small pox, Lassa fever and Marburg virus.

The conspiracy began in late January when British tabloid the Daily Mail and US conservative newspaper the Washington Times published articles claiming the recent outbreak could be the accidental result of secret biological weapons research in China.

Though the articles did not provide any evidence, the conspiracy quickly went viral on social media, prompting media outlets from the BBC to Foreign Policy to debunk the fringe theory.

On Jan 28, the Chinese embassy to Italy said in a statement the conspiracy is baseless and false reporting. "China will continue to maintain an open, transparent and highly responsible attitude when publishing information regarding the outbreak," it said.

"While strengthening outbreak prevention and control, China will continue to deepen international cooperation and tackle the disease together with the international community, and jointly maintain the safety and health of the region and the world."

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