Coronavirus is not genetically linked to HIV
CLAIM: Coronavirus has an HIV protein that proves it was genetically modified.
AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. Experts say the coronavirus has no HIV sequences in it’s genetic makeup.
THE FACTS: Since the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, social media posts have tried to cast doubt on its origins. Recently, online posts have tried to link the coronavirus and HIV to suggest the novel coronavirus was man-made.
“Those little spikes that come out of the Coronavirus and make it attach inside our lungs so efficiently are Spike Glycoproteins, better known as S-proteins for short. Well the Covid-19 strain that’s currently going around has S-protein 120 spikes. S-protein 120 is only found in one other virus known to man, HIV,” states a claim circulating on Facebook. It goes on to say that shows “the current Covid-19 strain was indeed genetically modified by the insertion of these HIV proteins into the Coronavirus and therefore weaponizing it.”
Vincent Racaniello, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia University, says such claims are not true. The coronavirus has no HIV-1 sequences, which can be seen by looking at the genome sequence, he said.
“The spike glycoprotein of SARS-CoV-2 is just like the spike of every other CoV,” Racaniello said in an email. “It is not from HIV-1. This post is pure nonsense, fake science, and not worth responding to.”
Similar posts circulated early this year after a scientific paper was published on bioRXIV, a repository for scientific papers that have not yet been peer reviewed or published in a traditional scientific journal. The paper was posted by Indian scientists who said they had found “uncanny similarity of unique inserts in the 2019-nCoV spike protein to HIV-1 gp120 and Gag.” At the time, the paper was widely debunked by scientists on social media. It was withdrawn from bioRXIV following the criticism, but the paper was used as fodder for conspiracy theorists and continues to circulate online in various forms.
A new version of the false claim attempts to make a link between the number (120 they falsely state) of spike proteins on coronavirus, which allow the virus to attach to human cells, and the molecular weight, 120kDa, of the glycoprotein protein on the outer layer of HIV. The gp120 protein in HIV helps the virus find a targeted host cell so it can replicate.
Dr. Phyllis Kanki, a professor of health sciences in the department of immunology and infectious diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said the 120 connection the post makes is inaccurate and means nothing. “I don’t know where they get this idea that it has 120 spikes, that is clearly wrong,” Kanki said. “It would be far greater than that.”
Experts further say the genes in the coronavirus spike protein and HIV gp120 look nothing alike.
“It’s like saying that because a dog has legs and we have legs then we are both the same thing,” said Dr. Joseph Petrosino, chair of molecular virology and microbiology and director of the Alkek Center for Metagenomics and Microbiome Research at Baylor College of Medicine. “That 120 has nothing to do with the 120 that’s on the HIV molecule.”
The posts also suggest that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, was involved in creating the virus because he is listed on several patents related to HIV research. Fauci received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2008 for his work around HIV and AIDS.
The false claim around the genetic makeup of the coronavirus, which has killed more than 100,000 people in the U.S. and 350,000 people globally, plays into a larger conspiracy theory that suggests the virus was made in a lab. It continues to circulate online despite the scientific proof that the virus comes from nature. A paper published in March in Nature, one of the world’s leading science journals, completed an analysis of the public genome sequence data of the virus and related viruses, and concluded that the coronavirus originated through natural processes.
“The scientific evidence is clear in this case that the virus is definitely not made in terms of splicing genomes together,” Petrosino said.
This is part of The Associated Press’ ongoing effort to fact-check misinformation that is shared widely online, including work with Facebook to identify and reduce the circulation of false stories on the platform.
Here’s more information on Facebook’s fact-checking program: https://www.facebook.com/help/1952307158131536