RAI’s 2015 Leonardo episode on Chinese man-made supervirus, debunked by scientists

Don’t believe the hype: Italian programme doing the rounds on Maltese social media is not proof that COVID-19 coronavirus was created in a Chinese laboratory

The presenter of the RAI Leonardo bulletin
The presenter of the RAI Leonardo bulletin

In 2015, an episode of Italian TV station RAI’s Leonardo, a news bulletin dedicated to science, claimed that Chinese scientists had created a pulmonary supervise from bats and mice “for study purposes”.

Sensational: the video’s second spin is gaining traction on social media as the world is hit by the coronavirus pandemic, with nearly 170,000 cases of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus cases being documented, Italy being among the worst hit.

In this video, the journalists claim Chinese researchers had grafted a surface protein taken from bats on a virus that causes SARS derived from mice, to create a supervirus that can affect humans.

But now the video is being touted as possible proof that the SARS-CoV-2 virus that originated in Wuhan would have been created in a laboratory and escaped the control of Chinese scientists.

According to this hypothesis, a group of Wuhan researchers would have conceived it as a bioterrorist weapon , but would then have let it slip, giving rise to the current pandemic .

Despite the denials of the Italian scientific community, the news has taken a life of its own. Italy’s far-right firebrand Matteo Salvini, ousted of power last year, announced a parliamentary question on the matter. “Unbelievable!” he said on social media, referring to the Leonardo programme on Facebook, with many other far-right parties like Fratelli d’Italia and Forza Italia joining his assault.

The Italian foreign minister Luigi di Maio, formerly Salvini’s unwilling coalition partner, countered by accusing the right of latching on to news that triggers panic “to feed anger, fear, bewilderment. [Salvini] doesn’t care about the country. He doesn’t give a damn, because the truth is that it is convenient for them to terrorize.”

But was the coronavirus really man-made?

No, say the Scripps Institute, which wrote in Nature Medicine journal as recently as 17 March that the novel SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that emerged in the city of Wuhan, and has since caused a large scale COVID-19 epidemic, is the product of natural evolution.

Prof. Kristian Andersen, of Scripps, said his team compared genome sequence data for known coronavirus strains. “We can firmly determine that SARS-CoV-2 originated through natural processes.”

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that can cause illnesses, ranging widely in severity. We know the first known severe illness caused by a coronavirus emerged with the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in China. A second outbreak of severe illness began in 2012 in Saudi Arabia with the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).

Shortly after the epidemic began, Chinese scientists sequenced the genome of SARS-CoV-2 and made the data available to researchers worldwide. Andersen used this data to explore the origins of SARS-CoV-2. Specifically, they focused on two important features of the spike protein: a kind of grappling hook that grips onto host cells, and like a can opener, allows the virus to crack open and enter host cells. This is called the the receptor-binding domain (RBD).

The scientists say this spike protein was so effective at binding the human cells, that this was evidence of being the result of natural selection and not the product of genetic engineering. This is because if someone were seeking to engineer a new coronavirus as a pathogen, they would have constructed it from the backbone of a virus known to cause illness. But the scientists found that the SARS-CoV-2 backbone differed substantially from those of already known coronaviruses and mostly resembled related viruses found in bats and pangolins.

“These two features of the virus, the mutations in the RBD portion of the spike protein and its distinct backbone, rules out laboratory manipulation as a potential origin for SARS-CoV-2,” Andersen said.

Andersen says the virus evolved into its current pathogenic state either through natural selection in a non-human host and then jumped to humans - that is how SARS and MERS happened, from civets and camels respectively. Or a non-pathogenic version of the virus jumped from an animal host into humans, and then evolved to its current pathogenic state within the human population.

The researchers proposed bats as the most likely reservoir for SARS-CoV-2 as it is very similar to a bat coronavirus. There are no documented cases of direct bat-human transmission, however, suggesting that an intermediate host was likely involved between bats and humans.

Study co-author Andrew Rambaut cautioned that it is difficult, if not impossible, to know at this point which of the scenarios is most likely. If the SARS-CoV-2 entered humans in its current pathogenic form from an animal source, it raises the probability of future outbreaks, as the illness-causing strain of the virus could still be circulating in the animal population and might once again jump into humans. The chances are lower of a non-pathogenic coronavirus entering the human population and then evolving properties similar to SARS-CoV-2.