Fact Check: 2015 Article About Lab-Made Coronavirus Triggers Debate

Hoax Alert

  • by: Ryan Cooper
Fact Check: 2015 Article About Lab-Made Coronavirus Triggers Debate

Does an article from a scientific journal in 2015 about a lab-made coronavirus refer to the current outbreak? No, that's not true, and here is some context: While the facts in The Scientist article appear to be accurate, the opinion piece is about a research study that is unrelated to the current coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China, and has already claimed more than 25 lives.

Users are sharing the article published by The Scientist on November 16, 2015, titled "Lab-Made Coronavirus Triggers Debate" (archived here) to drum up conspiracies or sound alarms. The article opened:

The creation of a chimeric SARS-like virus has scientists discussing the risks of gain-of-function research.

Ralph Baric, an infectious-disease researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, last week (November 9) published a study on his team's efforts to engineer a virus with the surface protein of the SHC014 coronavirus, found in horseshoe bats in China, and the backbone of to one that causes human-like severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in mice. The hybrid virus could infect human airway cells and caused disease in mice, according to the team's results, which were published in Nature Medicine.

Users on social media only saw this:

Lab-Made Coronavirus Triggers Debate

The creation of a chimeric SARS-like virus has scientists discussing the risks of gain-of-function research.

People sharing the article on social media are suggesting the current coronavirus was "lab-made." Here are a couple of examples:

The 2015 article, labeled a "news & opinion" piece, discussed the debate in the scientific community about so-called "gain-of-function" research. This type of study carries the risk of transmitting "potential pandemic pathogens (PPPs)," according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It has raised biosafety and biosecurity red flags.

The article in The Scientist even noted that the agency had placed a moratorium on federal funding of these studies. The NIH stated in 2013:

NIH has funded such studies because they help define the fundamental nature of human-pathogen interactions, enable the assessment of the pandemic potential of emerging infectious agents, and inform public health and preparedness efforts.

At issue, according to the article: a November 9, 2015, study published by an infectious-disease researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The research had been published in the journal Nature Medicine and demonstrated these findings:

We synthetically re-derived an infectious full-length SHC014 recombinant virus and demonstrate robust viral replication both in vitro and in vivo. Our work suggests a potential risk of SARS-CoV re-emergence from viruses currently circulating in bat populations.

This 2015 article from The Scientist about a gain-of-function study that created a SARS-like virus does not mean this current coronavirus outbreak was engineered then - or was even human-made at all.

The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal report that at least 26 deaths have been attributed to the current outbreak so far. On Chinese social media, people are expressing distrust of the authorities in Wuhan, and there are fears the government mishandled the outbreak.

Lead Stories reached out to The Scientist to add an editor's note or addendum to the story because the article is widely being misappropriated online:

Bottom line: the research discussed in the 2015 opinion piece from The Scientist does not relate to this current Wuhan coronavirus outbreak.

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See who is sharing it (it might even be your friends...) and leave the link in the comments.:

Lead Stories is working with the CoronaVirusFacts/DatosCoronaVirus Alliance, a coalition of more than 100 fact-checkers who are fighting misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more about the alliance here.


  Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a staff writer and fact-checker for Lead Stories, is the former Director of Programming at CNN International, where he helped shape the network's daily newscasts broadcast to more than 280 million households around the world. He was based at the network's Los Angeles Bureau. There, he managed the team responsible for a three-hour nightly program, Newsroom LA.

Formerly, he worked at the headquarters in Atlanta, and he spent four years at the London bureau. An award-winning producer, Cooper oversaw the network's Emmy Award-winning coverage of the uprising in Egypt in 2011. He also served as a supervising producer during much of the network's live reporting on the Israel-Hezbollah conflict in 2006, for which CNN received an Edward R. Murrow Award.

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