Contrary to claims in viral social media posts, the novel coronavirus was not man-made nor patented before outbreak
Patents cited to support this claim are not related to the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, which was newly identified in early January 2020 after genome sequencing. Instead, these patents are for known coronavirus strains such as SARS-CoV-1, which causes SARS. A pandemic simulation exercise called Event 201, which was held just before COVID-19 hit the U.S., did not predict the COVID-19 pandemic as many have claimed, and the hypothetical virus it modeled does not resemble SARS-CoV-2. Genomic analysis of SARS-CoV-2 indicates no signs of genetic modification. The wide scientific consensus is that the virus is of natural origin and that the outbreak began through zoonotic infection, not through a lab accident.
Inaccurate: Patents cited in these claims are for known coronaviruses such as SARS-CoV-1. The novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, was not identified until early January 2020. Genomic analysis of the virus indicates it has a natural origin and was not man-made.
Misrepresents source: Several coronavirus strains have been patented or referenced in the labeling of animal vaccines and disinfectants, such as Lysol. However, the 2019 outbreak was caused by a new coronavirus strain which emerged more recently.
[7 July 2021: We updated this claim review to reflect new developments that took place since the review’s publication in May 2020, specifically regarding discussions surrounding the origin of the virus SARS-CoV-2 and the availability of COVID-19 vaccines.]
The claim that SARS-CoV-2, the causative virus of COVID-19, is not actually a new virus has taken many different forms. One of its first incarnations, published in late January 2020, was made by Jordan Sather, who stated that the coronavirus is “‘new’ yet it was lab-created and patented in 2015”. Sather asserted that the proof of this claim was the existence of a patent for a coronavirus held by the Pirbright Institute in the United Kingdom. This claim went viral on Facebook within a day and spawned numerous copycat posts on Facebook that received more than 86,000 views. The rapid spread of this claim on social media was attributed to the group QAnon, as well as anti-vaccine groups.
However, the patent that Sather cited is not for SARS-CoV-2 at all, but for the avian infectious bronchitis virus, a coronavirus that infects birds. Similar false claims about patents related to SARS-CoV-2 have inaccurately referenced patents to other coronaviruses, such as a one for SARS-CoV-1 which caused the 2003 SARS outbreak of more than 8,000 cases of infection in 26 countries. No patents currently exist for SARS-CoV-2. Furthermore, the existence of a patent on a virus does not indicate that it was man-made because until 2013, U.S. patent law allowed patenting of natural organisms, as mentioned in this article by FactCheck.org.
This claim has evolved over time, with later posts citing product labelling on animal vaccines and virus-killing disinfectants, such as Lysol, which list “coronavirus” as one of the microorganisms it kills as evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is not new. However, “coronavirus” is not a single disease or organism, as many of these posts suggest. It is the name given to an entire family of viruses, some of which cause severe respiratory illnesses (such as SARS and MERS), and others which cause the common cold. These claims misleadingly conflate known coronaviruses with SARS-CoV-2, which is a novel coronavirus that was identified as the causal agent of COVID-19 in early January 2020.
No vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 that had been tested in large clinical trials was available up until the end of 2020, despite claims in some posts. On 2 December 2020, the U.K. became the first country to approve a COVID-19 vaccine tested in large clinical trials and shown to be highly effective at preventing illness, specifically the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration followed suit later that month, granting emergency use authorization to the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines.
Some posts claim that the 2019 pandemic was a planned, man-made event based on the fact that the outbreak began only a few months after a pandemic response simulation event called Event 201, held in New York on 18 October 2019. The association between the outbreak and Event 201 has been debunked by several fact-checkers, including PolitiFact, Full Fact, and FactCheck.org.
Event 201 was held jointly by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the World Economic Forum. The goal of the exercise was to “illustrate areas where public/private partnerships will be necessary during the response to a severe pandemic in order to diminish large-scale economic and societal consequences.” Due to the occurrence of the event only a few months before the global COVID-19 outbreak started, many have speculated that the exercise had already predicted the pandemic. The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security has clarified that no predictions were made during the exercise and that the parameters used in modeling their hypothetical virus did not resemble the characteristics of SARS-CoV-2:
“For the scenario, we modeled a fictional coronavirus pandemic, but we explicitly stated that it was not a prediction. Instead, the exercise served to highlight preparedness and response challenges that would likely arise in a very severe pandemic. We are not now predicting that the [SARS-CoV-2] outbreak will kill 65 million people. Although our tabletop exercise included a mock novel coronavirus, the inputs we used for modeling the potential impact of that fictional virus are not similar to [SARS-CoV-2].”
Related to the claim that the pandemic was planned is the claim that the virus is man-made, examples of which can be found in this New York Post article published in February 2020 and more recently, the “Plandemic” vignette featuring anti-vaccination activist Judy Mikovits. This claim has largely been fueled by the fact that there is a laboratory studying bat coronaviruses in Wuhan, although labs in the U.S. and Canada have also been implicated. Health Feedback reviewed the New York Post article and the Plandemic video and found that both contained inaccurate and unsupported information.
Another iteration of the claim that the virus is man-made revolves around the type of research conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, purportedly funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). Some claim that the institute conducted gain-of-function research. This Insight article by Health Feedback deals specifically with this subject.
In brief, while the institute did receive some funds that came from the NIH, this was through its work as a sub-contractor for EcoHealth Alliance, a non-profit organization dedicated “to protecting wildlife and public health from the emergence of disease”. The organization received a grant from the NIH to study “the function of newly discovered bat spike proteins and naturally occurring pathogens”. The research conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology didn’t constitute gain-of-function research by the NIH’s definition. However, the definition of gain-of-function research is a matter of debate in the scientific community.
The origin of the virus hasn’t yet been confirmed, but one early hypothesis is that it jumped from animals to humans at a wet market in Wuhan, China, that trades in a wide range of livestock. However, the first known case of COVID-19 had no known link to the market and neither did about one-third of later patients in the first cohort examined. This means that any potential jump could have taken place elsewhere.
Multiple pieces of evidence, such as the analysis of its likely evolutionary trajectory and past zoonotic outbreaks, which Health Feedback discussed in this article, indicate that the virus has a natural origin. The virus has been found to share 96% genomic sequence identity with a bat coronavirus isolated in the wild, named RaTG13. And genomic analysis of SARS-CoV-2 has shown no traces of bioengineering or manipulation.
However, this doesn’t rule out the possibility that a naturally-occurring virus leaked from a lab. Given the lack of evidence for or against this hypothesis, scientists penned a letter, published in Science on 14 May 2021, stating:
“We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data. A proper investigation should be transparent, objective, data-driven, inclusive of broad expertise, subject to independent oversight, and responsibly managed to minimize the impact of conflicts of interest. Public health agencies and research laboratories alike need to open their records to the public. Investigators should document the veracity and provenance of data from which analyses are conducted and conclusions drawn, so that analyses are reproducible by independent experts.”
- 1 – Zhu et al. (2020) A Novel Coronavirus from Patients with Pneumonia in China, 2019. New England Journal of Medicine.
- 2 – Huang et al. (2020) Clinical features of patients infected with 2019 novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China. The Lancet.
- 3 – Zhou et al. (2020) A pneumonia outbreak associated with a new coronavirus of probable bat origin. Nature.
- 4 – Andersen et al. (2020) The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2. Nature Medicine.