The coronavirus epidemic in China has infected more than 40,000 people and killed more than 1,000. The source of the highly contagious virus remains a mystery as scientists around the world debate whether it originated in bats, snakes, pangolins or humans.
A preprint scientific manuscript published Jan. 31 by a group of Indian researchers suggested that the virus, known as COVID-19, may have been deliberately engineered using the HIV. The findings, which fed conspiracy theories that the new virus might be a bioweapon, have sparked a huge controversy. The authors withdrew the paper on Feb. 2 from the bioRxiv preprint server.
Multiple scientists, including Eric Feigl-Ding, a health economist at Harvard University's School of Public Health, and Shi Zhengli, a Chinese virologist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and a member of a team that found the origin of the SARS virus in bats, have criticized the paper as lacking scientific merit and have called it misleading.
Preprints are manuscripts describing research that has yet to undergo peer review, an important but usually lengthy step for findings to be published in science journals. Preprints are useful because they let scientists post preliminary findings and receive feedback from peers quickly. They also keep other scientists informed on the latest research and foster collaboration.
But some scientists argue unreviewed papers are also prone to spreading pseudoscience, bad data and erroneous research.
The outbreak of COVID-19 in China and its rapid spread around the world have made new research on the little-known, deadly virus crucial for scientists seeking to better understand its transmission patterns and find possible cures.
Another preprint recently posted by a group of researchers led by Zhong Nanshan, a Chinese epidemiologist who discovered the SARS coronavirus in 2003, provides insights on the evolution of the new virus. The study, based on data gathered from more than 1,000 coronavirus patients in China, found that fewer than half the patients had a fever when first seen by doctors, and that use of computed tomography scans in early diagnoses may have missed a significant number of cases.
The Indian paper, titled, "Uncanny similarity of unique inserts in the 2019-nCoV spike protein to HIV-1 gp 120 and Gag," which claimed to find similarities between the new coronavirus and HIV, is based on improperly selected data, statistical analysis methods that violate basic norms and incorrect argumentation, Yang Ence, a scientist at Peking University's School of Basic Medical Sciences, wrote in a blog post recently. COVID-19 was previously known as 2019-nCoV.
The paper claimed to find four unique inserts in COVID-19, all of which are similar to amino acid residues in key structural proteins of HIV-1, which is "unlikely to be fortuitous in nature," suggesting that the virus might have been designed.
However, three of the inserts mentioned in the paper were found in a known coronavirus carried by bats, and the fourth was very similar to the bat coronavirus, Yang said. None of them is from the HIV, Yang said.
Yang added that the so-called inserts exist in the genetic sequences in many other animals and plants. The paper listed only seven to 12 amino acid residues of the inserts, while the HIV contains hundreds of amino acid residues. If such inserts can be compared with a fragment of the HIV, similarities can also be found in the genetic sequences of a variety of organisms, such as fruit flies, mold or even lentils, Yang wrote.
Yang warned against giving credence to research that reaches eye-catching conclusions based on bioinformatics analyses that do not follow methodological norms.
Publishers of such preprint papers have also responded. Both bioRxiv and medRxiv, the platform that published the Zhong paper, attach a cautionary note on all coronavirus-related preprint papers, reminding professionals not to use them to guide clinical practice, because they haven't been reviewed.
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