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Fact Check-SARS-CoV-2 has been isolated and its complete genome has been sequenced 

An interview with a late Canadian writer has resurfaced on social media and shows him making several false claims about COVID-19. Among them, he questions the existence of coronaviruses by saying they have never been isolated. This is not true, and such a claim reveals the writer’s lack of understanding of virology.

A clip from the interview was posted to several Instagram accounts in mid-March (here, here and here), and was taken from a wider 95-minute podcast recorded in May 2020 (here). It shows the interviewee, who died several months later (here, here), claiming scientists who say SARS-CoV-2 has been isolated are lying as “nobody has ever purified a coronavirus”.

“You can tell a virologist is lying when they use the word ‘isolation’,” he said. “There’s innumerable papers that say we isolated the virus, but let me describe how they did it… They took a nasal swab and they processed it somehow; like you have to add antibiotics to kill bacteria and things like that. So you process it and add it to a cell culture. They observed cells dying in the cell culture and they wrote: ‘We have isolated the virus.’ Clearly, it’s not specific. Even if you have identified a virus, you haven’t identified a specific virus. So then they searched around for RNA and they found a long string of RNA which looked like what had previously been called coronavirus. But nobody has ever purified a coronavirus.”

When asked whether this means no one knows if coronaviruses exist, he added: “Yeah, I think what they did; they looked at people with the common cold and they found some RNA patterns and they said: ‘Oh this must be the virus.’ They leaped to these conclusions. With the new world of biotechnology and PCR, this technology that underlines the test, these things are really easy to do but they’re not grounded in anything.”

However, the first argument relating to isolation is not true. There are multiple examples of scientists isolating SARS-CoV-2 (here, here, here, here), the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, where they also sequenced the complete genome (here, here, here). Pictures of isolated SARS-CoV-2 particles have been released by the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (here).

Meanwhile, the second argument, that coronaviruses have never been purified, shows a misunderstanding of how viruses work – and does not prove they do not exist. Siouxsie Wiles, an associate professor at the University of Auckland’s Department of Molecular Medicine and Pathology, has previously addressed similar claims, saying they reference outdated microbiological theory (here).

Wiles said claims about purification come from the four “postulates”- or conditions - laid out by 19th Century German microbiologist Robert Koch on how to conclude whether a microbe is the cause of a disease. One of these conditions stipulates the organism must be isolated from the host, ie: the infected human, before being grown in a pure culture.

However, Wiles says that at least one of these postulates was made obsolete in Koch’s time – and all were devised before viruses were discovered.

“Viruses aren’t like the bacteria that Koch was busy discovering,” Wiles said. “Viruses need to take over a host cell to replicate. In other words, they turn cells into virus-producing factories. And depending on what proteins a virus has on its surface, it may only be able to infect very specific cells from certain host species, or a wide range of cells from lots of different species.

“That’s why when virologists want to isolate a virus from a sample, they’ll take the sample or some part of it and add it to some cells – usually ones that are relatively easy to grow in the lab – and then look to see if the cells die and/or if there are any virus particles released into the liquid nutrient bath the cells are growing in.”

Since the new coronavirus was discovered, there have been more than 123 million cases of novel coronavirus infections confirmed worldwide. There have also been more than 2.8 million deaths reported as a result of COVID-19 (here).

VERDICT

False. There are numerous examples of scientists isolating SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID -19, and sequencing its genome. The argument about purification relates to 19th Century microbiological theory that does not apply to viruses. The novel coronavirus has been proven to exist and has caused millions of deaths worldwide.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our fact-checking work here.    

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