A pre-print of a scientific paper speculated that coronavirus had been engineered to include viral … [+]
The Wuhan coronavirus has gripped the attention of the world and with this attention, people understandably have questions. Masks; to wear or not to wear? Will the flu shot protect you from coronavirus? No. Is the coronavirus anything to do with Corona beer? No, come on. But with so much focus on one topic and new information about the outbreak coming out constantly, inevitably a slew of spurious information is also flooding the internet. Unsurprisingly the virus has resulted in several, well…viral news stories with little scientific merit.
The newest of these was a little unusual because it was based on a pre-print of a real scientific paper, (since removed just a few hours ago) uploaded to website bioRxiv, where scientists can present their completed, or near-completed studies, prior to peer-review by other scientists. The work, by a group based in India, was entitled “Uncanny similarity of unique inserts in the 2019-nCoV spike protein to HIV-1 gp120 and Gag.”
Seeing HIV and coronavirus in the same sentence is understandably a little startling, so what does it actually mean?
“Based on analysis of multiple, very short regions of proteins in the novel coronavirus, the bioRxiv paper claimed that the new coronavirus may have acquired these regions from HIV,” said Arinjay Banerjee, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in virology at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada who has extensively studied coronaviruses.
Some types of viruses can swap pieces of their genetic code and in this case,the authors of the study say that the specific coronavirus which is involved in the most recent outbreak (2019-nCoV) has four small chunks of sequence in its genetic code which are not found in other, similar coronaviruses like SARS. According to the authors, these pieces bear some resemblance to bits of sequence also found in HIV.
However, the authors then speculated that this might not be a coincidence and perhaps the bits of genetic code were put there intentionally. The conspiracy theory was addressed today by a scientist from the Wuhan Institute of Virology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who rubbished the claims.
The wider scientific community, upon seeing the paper, were also less than impressed with these conclusions and speculations and swiftly set about not only voicing their concerns, but analyzing the data to double-check the results.
Essentially, the scientists found that yes, there are some additions in the nCoV coronavirus originating in Wuhan that other coronaviruses don’t have, which are similar to pieces of sequence found in HIV. But, the kicker here is that these pieces of genetic code are also found in countless other viruses and there’s no reason to believe they specifically came from HIV, at all.
“The authors compared very short regions of proteins in the novel coronavirus and concluded that the small segments of proteins were similar to segments in HIV proteins. Comparing very short segments can often generate false positives and it is difficult to make these conclusions using small protein segments,” said Banerjee.
The paper was withdrawn from bioRxiv on Sunday afternoon with one of the authors stating: “ it was not our intention to feed into the conspiracy theories and no such claims are made here.” The author further declares that the researchers will revise the paper and re-analyze the data before submitting it again.
But despite the removal, the pre-print paper has stimulated a heap of discussion about HIV and coronavirus. Many people have asked on social media why, if coronavirus does not have pieces of HIV in it, HIV drugs are being used in some cases to treat the virus, with preliminary evidence that they, and other anti-viral drugs appear to be working in some cases.
“Some antiviral drugs can work against fundamental and generic steps involved in RNA virus replication. Anti-HIV drugs that inhibit viral RNA (genome) replication or the process of making viral protein from viral RNA may also work against other RNA viruses. This depends on the mode of action of the drugs,” explains Banerjee.
Presumably in response to the rather critical attention that this paper received, bioRxiv has added a banner ‘warning’ to every new preprint on the website:
“bioRxiv is receiving many new papers on coronavirus 2019-nCoV. A reminder: these are preliminary reports that have not been peer-reviewed. They should not be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice/health-related behavior, or be reported in news media as established information,” read the statement.
Publishing scientific articles as pre-prints without any peer review beforehand is controversial and complex, with one valid question being whether media outlets should cover pre-print work and risk potentially misinforming the public if the original results are not quite up to scratch, as happened with the recent HIV/coronavirus paper. Has this recent incident tarnished the reputation of preprints?
“No. In fact, I believe that this why pre-prints were established. The scientific community can provide feedback prior to formal peer-review. Pre-prints offer the authors an opportunity to seek feedback from a wider scientific community, more than the 2-3 peer-reviewers in a formal review setting” said Banerjee, stating that this paper certainly would not have passed official peer review.
“It is unfortunate that multiple articles on pre-print servers were victims of viral social media posts, especially studies that were not robust or scientifically sound,” said Banerjee. “But I am impressed how quickly other researchers debunked the studies and reanalyzed the data,” he added.
Note: the authors of the bioRxiv paper were contacted for comment but had not replied at the time of publishing this article.