Since the beginning of this year, several speculations and theories over the origin of the novel coronavirus or COVID-19 have made headlines. After months of analysis on virus genome data that emerged in the city of Wuhan and killed over 7,000 people globally has been revealed now.
Scientists analysed the genome sequence data from the new strain of the Coronavirus and other related viruses to understand its evolution theory. As per the result, which was published on Tuesday, March 17, the researchers noted that the Novel Coronavirus is the product of natural evolution.
Kristian Andersen, an associate professor of immunology and microbiology at Scripps Research and corresponding author on the new paper said, "By comparing the available genome sequence data for known coronavirus strains, we can firmly determine that SARS-CoV-2 originated through natural processes."
This finding clearly indicates that the virus was not created inside any controlled environment such as laboratories. But still, the naturally evolved virus is so strong that it has affected the more than 199,400 people in the world.
A member of the Coronavirus family
It should be noted the Novel Coronavirus is a member of a large family of viruses that can cause illnesses ranging widely in severity. The Coronavirus family was first categorized in the 1960s but the first known severe illness caused by a Coronavirus had emerged with the 2003 SARS or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome epidemic in China.
Later, in 2012 another Coronavirus family member, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) hit the world after it originated in Saudi Arabia. After a few years, in December 2019, Chinese authority reported the outbreak of the new strain of Coronavirus to World Health Organization (WHO).
The Wuhan Coronavirus which has shifted its epicentre from Asia to Europe was categorized as a pandemic by the WHO. Scientists in China sequenced the genome of SARS-CoV-2 and made the data available to researchers worldwide which allows the researchers to find a drug or vaccine against the COVID-19.
The origin story was hidden inside gene sequence
In the new research which was published on Tuesday, scientists used this sequencing data to explore the origins and evolution of the new Coronavirus by focusing on several tell-tale features of the virus. During the study, researchers found that the receptor-binding domain (RBD) portion of the Novel Coronavirus spike proteins had evolved to effectively target a molecular feature on the outside of human cells called ACE2, which is a receptor involved in regulating blood pressure.
The spike protein was so effective at binding the human cells that the scientists concluded that it was the result of natural selection and not a product of genetic engineering.
The scientists claim that if someone wanted to engineer a new Coronavirus as a pathogen, then they would have constructed it form the backbone of a virus known to cause illness but the study found that Novel Coronavirus' backbone differed substantially from those of already known Coronaviruses and mostly resembled related viruses found in bats and pangolins which are believed to be the source of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Many researchers suggested that the bats in China could be the ideal candidates. But in Thailand where bat droppings or "guano" are collected for fertilizer, villagers rejected the bat version. One of the Thai villagers said that in the region, they were collecting guano since they were young, about seven or eight years old, but they never got sick for anything.