The possibility of laboratory containment of the coronavirus or lack of it cannot be ruled out, said a group of scientists from the IIT-Delhi who had conducted research on the origin of the virus. The scientists claim that “four insertions in the COVID-19 virus in a short duration of time" is very unusual.
Even though their research was conducted in 2020, it has not been published yet and has been shelved because of the alleged backlash from within the community.
The study titled "Uncanny similarity of unique inserts in the 2019-nCoV spike protein to HIV-1 gp120 and Gag" was withdrawn after the accusations of fueling conspiracy theories by fellow scientists. The work was read to imply that insertions were made by choice while conducting experiments in the Wuhan Laboratory, China.
The accusation perturbed the authors. Prof. B. Kundu, the lead member of the group, claims that the purpose of the study was "to simply place the findings in public so that researchers around the world can take clues and devise suitable remedial measures – vaccine, diagnostic, neutralizing antibodies, detection etc”.
There is a renewed interest in the research around the origin of the coronavirus after US President Joe Biden asked US Intelligence to find the origin of SARS-CoV-2. The World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2020 had said that the laboratory origin of the virus is “extremely unlikely”, however, in a recent bulletin WHO "called for further studies, data on the origin of SARS-CoV-2 virus," and reiterated, "all hypotheses remain open".
According to the Indian scientists, there is no denying that "there are unusual inserts, mostly well-adopted for human infection". According to the group members, there is no denying that the statistical possibility of naturally obtaining "one insert is normal"; "two inserts are acceptable"; "three inserts- may be rare" though a statistically remote possibility. “But four inserts?” made them wonder, "What is the statistical possibility of finding four inserts?"
"We are not saying there is anything 'impossible’ but a possible laboratory contamination or lack cannot be ruled out," said Kundu.
"We still believe there is ‘something odd’ in terms of duration of evolution and acquisition of the inserts. We have been following up various papers and reports but are no longer actively involved in finding the origin," said Kundu.
The withdrawn study said, "The evolution of 2019-nCoV remains elusive. We found four insertions in the spike glycoprotein (S), which are unique to the 2019-nCoV and are not present in other coronaviruses." Further, the study added, "Importantly, amino acid residues in all the four inserts have identity or similarity to those in the HIV-1 gp120 or HIV-1 Gag."
Interestingly, "The finding of four unique inserts in the 2019-nCoV, all of which have identity or similarity to amino acid residues in key structural proteins of HIV-1 is unlikely to be fortuitous in nature," said the study.
The term insertion hints at contamination by choice. The scientists found that their statistical treatment was robust but finding four inserts was unlikely.
Since the accusations and withdrawal, the scholars have involved themselves in finding a solution to the pandemic. "We have tried to say what we found, and now we have moved on to make the detection kit for COVID-19 and that has been the most pleasing and proud story to share. We were the first educational institution to bring out a probe-free COVID detection kit (Named CoroSure) and is now well used by many," said Kundu.
The media attention was new and overwhelming for them and they also kept tabs on "pseudoscience", "attention-seeking scientist" tags, used against them. "Having never ever experienced such an avalanche of attention, praised as well as ridiculed, we were thrown back into rethinking whether we have really done something wrong?” said Kundu.