STORY UPDATED: check for updates below.
Did scientists claim the Wuhan coronavirus is an HIV-1 engineered hybrid "superweapon"? No, that's not true: The scientific research cited in a video making the claim has not been peer-reviewed, and the authors have withdrawn the paper, saying they intend to revise their interpretation of the results.
The claim originated from a post (archived here) published by STFN Reloaded on February 1, 2020, under the title "BREAKING: WUHAN SUPER VIRUS IS HIV-1 ENGINEERED HYBRID SCIENTISTS CLAIM - AVOID SUPER BOWL." It opened:
BREAKING: WUHAN SUPER VIRUS IS HIV-1 ENGINEERED HYBRID SCIENTISTS CLAIM - AVOID SUPER BOWL EVENTS
Users on social media saw this:
The narrator of the video makes several claims that he ties to a research paper from scientists at the Indian Institute of Technology and the University of Delhi, both in New Delhi, India.
The paper claimed that the researchers found an "uncanny" similarity between the Wuhan coronavirus and HIV-1:
We found 4 insertions in the spike glycoprotein (S) which are unique to the 2019-nCoV and are not present in other coronaviruses. Importantly, amino acid residues in all the 4 inserts have identity or similarity to those in the HIV- 1 gp120 or HIV-1 Gag.
The video used this research as the basis of its claim that the novel coronavirus is a so-called "superweapon" that is going to spread HIV around the world. The narrator said:
It spreads in the air like the flu and kinda gives you AIDS, that's basically the short description of this virus.
He went on to say that the "enemy has landed" in the form of the coronavirus:
It's invisible, it's in your town, but it's here now.
The narrator called his video a "public service announcement" and urged people to avoid sharing "chips and dip" at parties during the Super Bowl.
Never mind that this is not what the scientists in India are suggesting. They never claimed the latest coronavirus was a "superweapon" or that it would spread HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
The scientists concluded, "Our findings suggest unconventional evolution of 2019-nCoV that warrants further investigation."
Crucially, the Indian study was not peer-reviewed by others in the scientific community, and a disclaimer noted "these are preliminary reports":
They should not be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice/health-related behavior, or be reported in news media as established information.
After posting their research, the authors withdrew their paper and added this comment to a discussion post:
This is a preliminary study. Considering the grave situation, it was shared in BioRxiv as soon as possible to have creative discussion on the fast evolution of SARS-like corona viruses. It was not our intention to feed into the conspiracy theories and no such claims are made here. While we appreciate the criticisms and comments provided by scientific colleagues at BioRxiv forum and elsewhere, the story has been differently interpreted and shared by social media and news platforms. We have positively received all criticisms and comments. To avoid further misinterpretation and confusions world-over, we have decided to withdraw the current version of the preprint and will get back with a revised version after reanalysis, addressing the comments and concerns. Thank you to all who contributed in this open-review process.
It remains to be seen whether their research may offer valuable clues or insights into the origin of the coronavirus, which has killed more than 300 people and infected more than 14,000 others, according to The New York Times. The virus originated in Wuhan, China, more than a week ago, and more than two dozen countries have confirmed cases.
Video posts such as this one are not sharing new information on the outbreak. Instead, they are fear-mongering the public and spreading conspiracy theories that have already been debunked.
Update (February 4, 2020):
On January 31, 2020, Anand Ranganathan, a Ph.D., an associate professor at the Special Centre for Molecular Medicine at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India, tweeted that the scientists "hint" at the possibility the Wuhan coronavirus was designed in a laboratory. He linked to the study mentioned in this article.
He has since deleted that tweet and linked to a blog post titled, "No, the 2019-nCoV genome doesn't really seem engineered from HIV."
n/n This is an excellent and comprehensive rebuttal to the Indian study.-- Anand Ranganathan (@ARanganathan72) February 1, 2020
In light of it, I think it is prudent to delete my tweet, leaving behind the question whether one should publish non-peer reviewed studies in fast-moving, in-public-eye domains. https://t.co/2VOGRcpnOf
The author of that blog post, Ari Allyn-Feuer, refuted the paper, writing:
...despite this new paper's language, a random sequence overlap is still the leading explanation for sequence alignment it identifies with HIV.
Take this to the bank: 2019-nCoV continues to give every appearance of being a wild coronavirus that jumped from bats to humans by way of an animal intermediary in the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan in late 2019. It is not an escaped bioweapon.
Allyn-Feuer added that he has a Ph.D. in bioinformatics and that he is "a principal data scientist at a major pharmaceutical company. This paper isn't directly in my wheelhouse, but it's pretty close," he said.
Marc Van Ranst, a virologist at KU Leuven, Belgium's oldest university, also criticized the paper. In a tweet, he said:
I did the analysis myself, using a multiple alignment of many more sars-like bat coronaviruses, and the 'insertion' is present already in these viruses. Furthermore, I don't see any evidence of the insertions being HIV-related.-- Marc Van Ranst (@vanranstmarc) January 31, 2020
In a separate blog post, Dr. Grant Jacobs also urged people to exercise caution about reading into "pre-print" studies. He wrote:
Preprints are essentially drafts of what would be sent to a journal for criticism. They haven't been checked by any scientists outside of the research team. No peer review before being released. And even if that had [been] done, the true peer review is what happens in the following weeks or months. Formal peer review is limited, [and] more subtle things are caught later.
2020-02-04T18:32:10Z 2020-02-04T18:32:10ZSince we published this article, people have continued to share and comment on the “pre-print” Indian study, which the authors have withdrawn. We have updated this story to reflect more of the online commentary about the study.