While there is speculation that the new coronavirus caused today’s pandemic after escaping from a lab, there is no evidence to support the claim, says University of Utah Health evolutionary virologist Stephen Goldstein, PhD. In contrast, Goldstein indicates several lines of evidence that point to the contrary. Chief among them is genomic data showing that the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 originated from bats and there are related coronaviruses that circulate at high levels in bat populations in southern China. The idea is that a genetic change happened in the bat virus that allowed it to cause the outbreak in humans.
“In contrast to the complete lack of evidence for a lab ‘escape’, there are many examples of animal viruses — including bat viruses — causing human outbreaks, epidemics and pandemics,” says Goldstein. He explains that a few examples include HIV (chimpanzees), hantaviruses (rodents), influenza viruses (birds) and the MERS coronavirus that went from bats to camels to humans.
Goldstein can discuss how pangolins or other wild or farmed mammals may have been intermediate hosts, as was seen for SARS-CoV in 2002-2003. This may have played a role in bringing the virus outside its normal geographical range to come in close proximity to humans.
Goldstein is currently researching the origins of SARS-CoV-2 and changes that may have allowed the virus to jump from bats to people. He has expertise in coronaviruses, having previously researched innate immunity antagonism by MERS-CoV.