Francis Collins: On the Origins of Coronavirus

by Francis Collins edited by O Society April 16, 2020

No matter where you go online these days, there’s bound to be discussion of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Some folks are even making outrageous claims the new coronavirus causing the pandemic was engineered in a lab and deliberately released to make people sick. A new study debunks such claims by providing scientific evidence that this novel coronavirus arose naturally.

The reassuring findings are the result of genomic analyses conducted by an international research team, partly supported by NIH. In their study in the journal Nature Medicine, Kristian Andersen, Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA; Robert Garry, Tulane University School of Medicine, New Orleans; and their colleagues used sophisticated bioinformatic tools to compare publicly available genomic data from several coronaviruses, including the new one that causes COVID-19.

The researchers began by homing in on the parts of the coronavirus genomes that encode the spike proteins that give this family of viruses their distinctive crown-like appearance. (By the way, “corona” is Latin for “crown.”) All coronaviruses rely on spike proteins to infect other cells. But, over time, each coronavirus has fashioned these proteins a little differently, and the evolutionary clues about these modifications are spelled out in their genomes.

The genomic data of the new coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 show that its spike protein contains some unique adaptations. One of these adaptations provides special ability of this coronavirus to bind to a specific protein on human cells called angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE2). A related coronavirus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in humans also seeks out ACE2.

Existing computer models predicted that the new coronavirus would not bind to ACE2 as well as the SARS virus. However, to their surprise, the researchers found that the spike protein of the new coronavirus actually bound far better than computer predictions, likely because of natural selection on ACE2 that enabled the virus to take advantage of a previously unidentified alternate binding site. Researchers said this provides strong evidence that that new virus was not the product of purposeful manipulation in a lab. In fact, any bioengineer trying to design a coronavirus that threatened human health probably would never have chosen this particular conformation for a spike protein.


The researchers went on to analyze genomic data related to the overall molecular structure, or backbone, of the new coronavirus. Their analysis showed that the backbone of the new coronavirus’s genome most closely resembles that of a bat coronavirus discovered after the COVID-19 pandemic began. However, the region that binds ACE2 resembles a novel virus found in pangolins, a strange-looking animal sometimes called a scaly anteater. This provides additional evidence that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 almost certainly originated in nature. If the new coronavirus had been manufactured in a lab, scientists most likely would have used the backbones of coronaviruses already known to cause serious diseases in humans.

So, what is the natural origin of the novel coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic? The researchers don’t yet have a precise answer. But they do offer two possible scenarios.


In the first scenario, as the new coronavirus evolved in its natural hosts, possibly bats or pangolins, its spike proteins mutated to bind to molecules similar in structure to the human ACE2 protein, thereby enabling it to infect human cells. This scenario seems to fit other recent outbreaks of coronavirus-caused disease in humans, such as SARS, which arose from cat-like civets; and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which arose from camels.

The second scenario is that the new coronavirus crossed from animals into humans before it became capable of causing human disease. Then, as a result of gradual evolutionary changes over years or perhaps decades, the virus eventually gained the ability to spread from human-to-human and cause serious, often life-threatening disease.

Either way, this study leaves little room to refute a natural origin for COVID-19. And that’s a good thing because it helps us keep focused on what really matters: observing good hygiene, practicing social distancing, and supporting the efforts of all the dedicated health-care professionals  and researchers  who work so hard to address this major public health challenge.

Finally, next time you come across something about COVID-19 online that disturbs or puzzles you, I suggest going to FEMA’s new Coronavirus Rumor Control web site. It may not have all the answers to your questions, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction in helping to distinguish rumors from facts.

[1] The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2 . Andersen KG, Rambaut A, Lipkin WI, Holmes EC, Garry RF. Nat Med, 17 March 2020. [Epub ahead of publication]

[2] A SARS-like cluster of circulating bat coronaviruses shows potential for human emergence.  Nature Medicine volume 21pages1508–1513(2015)


Nextstrain: World Scientific Consensus on Coronavirus

Coronavirus Information from the People Who Know

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

COVID-19, MERS & SARS (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Andersen Lab  (Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA)

Robert Garry  (Tulane University School of Medicine, New Orleans)

Coronavirus Rumor Control (FEMA)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Human Genome Research Institute

How Do You Know COVID-19 Was Not* Made by Humans in a Chinese Lab? (Part I)

“Pure Baloney”: Zoologist Debunks Trump’s COVID-19 Origin Story, Explains Animal-Human Transmission (Part II)

38 thoughts on “Francis Collins: On the Origins of Coronavirus

    1. I don’t speak French, so I have no idea what is being said. Does this person mention HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) comes from monkeys SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus)?

      Like HIV and SIV, COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease meaning it can be transferred between human and non-human animals.


      1. your obfuscations and ad hominems mean nothing to me. youve been outed. youre right to use the pronoun ‘us’ instead of ‘me’. because you represent ‘them’.


  1. ^ This is an excellent question. Thanks for asking it Fabian von Schlabrendorff!

    To do it justice is not possible in a short reply in the comments section, so what we’ll do is make a post – or rather it is going to be a series of posts – which not only answers Fabian von Schlabrendorff’s question, hopefully it illustrates “How to” think about a question like this one and answer it for yourself.

    What I mean is I’ll write a series of posts which takes everyone step-by-step how I think about a specific question using the origin of coronavirus as our example, and hopefully the outcome will be crystal clear enough anyone (ahem, it is the interwebs so this means anyone who is not a troll) can follow it and come up with a cogent answer to satisfy their own minds using my thought process as a template.

    This actually happens to be my area of expertise – biology and genetics – so we can do this, no question.


  2. durdens credentials are beside the point. did Luc Montagnier say this or not? you obviously have another source that can help verify what durden said. i dont need to know if durden is a good guy. did the prof say it was lab produced? is he an expert? why should i believe collins over him? my point is that there are some experts that dont agree with yours. and with all the suspicious goings on surrounding this viral lockdown, im more inclined to believe the experts who say its lab manufactured.


      1. so what? whats that to me? im not a tyler durden supporter. one way to recognize dis info is it tries to divert discussion to some insignificant issue. another is it tries to shame those with a different pov. you are disinfo, buddy.


  3. Oh yeah. I trust this guy:
    “That’s why the NIH decided to allow these sorts of studies to resume, according to a statement by director Francis Collins.

    “[Gain of function] research is important in helping us identify, understand, and develop strategies and effective countermeasures against rapidly evolving pathogens that pose a threat to public health,” Collins wrote.”


    1. Dear nomad,

      You are embarrassing yourself. I have met Francis Collins and attended his medical genetics lectures. He was the director of the Human Genome Project. The talks I saw him give were at the ACMG national meetings.

      Do you know Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project? Neil Armstrong and NASA landing on the moon? The Human Genome Project is on this level of human achievement and Collins was its director.

      He’s only probably the most well known and well respected geneticist in the entire world.

      The question is Who Are You? Have you ever taken a genetics class in your life?


  4. Willful ignorance is sometimes referred to as tactical stupidity. Depending on the nature and strength of an individual’s pre-existing beliefs, willful ignorance can manifest itself in different ways. The practice can entail completely disregarding established facts, evidence and/or reasonable opinions if they fail to meet one’s expectations. Often the willfully ignorant will make excuses, claiming that a source is unreliable, suggesting that an experiment was flawed or asserting that an opinion is too biased. More often than not this is simple circular reasoning: “I cannot agree with that source because it is untrustworthy because it disagrees with me.”


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