Li-Meng Yan, a former life science researcher at the University of Hong Kong, revealed a paper on Monday (local time) claiming that COVID-19 was artificially developed at a military research center in Wuhan, Hubei. The paper, which was revealed on a data-sharing website for scientists, garnered huge attention with 400,000 people worldwide reading it in just one day. However, scientists criticize that the paper is a typical conspiracy theory that lacks evidence. Facebook and Twitter also determined the theory as false information and took actions, such as blocking Yan’s Twitter account.
Yan cited three reasons in her 26-page paper to explain why SAR-CoV-2 – the virus causing COVID-19 infections – is not the result of natural evolution.
First, she claimed that the genome sequences of two viruses – ZC45 and ZXC21 – found in bats in Zhoushan, Zhejiang Province are very similar to those of SAR-CoV-2. Second, she said that there are signs of certain sequences inserted into the gene of spike protein, which plays a crucial role in viral penetration into human cells. She also claimed that the fact that the sequences are similar to those of SARS-CoV, which causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), is evidence for an artificial insertion.
For spike protein to penetrate into cells, it needs to be cut by hydrolase. Yan claimed that the cut was made more advantageous for infection. "The laboratory creation of this coronavirus is convenient and can be accomplished in approximately six months," said Yan.
Reactions among scientists to her paper are icy. In particular, there is a lot of criticism against the signs of cut and inserted genome sequences, which she suggested as critical evidence of genetic engineering. “The basis of her claim is that specific genome sequences, which can be cut by hydrolase that is used to insert genome sequences, is found,” said Jang Hye-sik, a researcher of Center for RNA Research at the Institute for Basic Science, who published the most detailed genetic map of SAR-CoV-2 in the world in April. “As such sequences can be discovered elsewhere by chance, however, it cannot be considered as meaningful evidence.”