Statement from the RR:C19 Editorial Office (September 24, 2020)
While pre-print servers offer a mechanism to disseminate world-changing scientific research at unprecedented speed, they are also a forum through which misleading information can instantaneously undermine the international scientific community’s credibility, destabilize diplomatic relationships, and compromise global safety.
On September 14th, Dr. Li-Meng Yan and colleagues released a report entitled Unusual Features of the SARS-CoV-2 Genome Suggesting Sophisticated Laboratory Modification Rather Than Natural Evolution and Delineation of Its Probable Synthetic Route. Yan et al. put forth unverified in silico evidence to support their assertion that SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic, was created via intentional genetic manipulation in China. This work goes on to implicate numerous research groups in contributing to the COVID-19 pandemic and calls for “an independent investigation into the relevant research laboratories.” If valid, these lines of evidence would support the disturbing claim that SARS-CoV-2 is a man-made virus; however, if the claims are not adequately substantiated, this work is defamatory, grossly negligent, and ethically dubious.
Given the far-reaching implications of the “Yan Report,” RR:C19 sought out peer reviews from world-renowned experts in virology, molecular biology, structural biology, computational biology, vaccine development, and medicine. Collectively, reviewers have debunked the authors’ claims that: (1) bat coronaviruses ZC45 or ZXC21 were used as a background strain to engineer SARS-CoV-2, (2) the presence of restriction sites flanking the RBD suggest prior screening for a virus targeting the human ACE2 receptor, and (3) the furin-like cleavage site is unnatural and provides evidence of engineering. In all three cases, the reviewers provide counter-arguments based on peer-reviewed literature and long-established foundational knowledge that directly refute the claims put forth by Yan et al. There was a general consensus that the study’s claims were better explained by potential political motivations rather than scientific integrity. The peer reviewers arrived at these common opinions independently, further strengthening the credibility of the peer reviews.
We are posting the initial two reviews but expect additional reviews to be posted in the coming days.