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Fact check: SARS-CoV-2 was not created using genes from HIV, Fauci does not hold patents for an ‘HIV component’ to SARS-CoV-2

An article circulating on social media claims that Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “holds patents of an HIV component used to create COVID-19”. This is false.

Reuters Fact Check. REUTERS

This claim feeds into the conspiracy theory that the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 was “manmade” – in this case, arguing it was developed with the genetic code of HIV. Both allegations have been dismissed by health authorities ( here , here , here ) and scientists largely agree the virus’ genetic sequencing reflects that of a virus occurring naturally and not in a lab ( here ).

The article authored by Jerome Corsi, a right-wing political commentator and conspiracy theorist ( here ), has been circulating since April 28, 2020 and is visible here . Recent Facebook posts featuring screenshots or text from the article are visible here , here , and here .

THE PATENTS

The article refers to “four patents on which Fauci is named as an inventor”, but actually lists two patents (9896509,  bit.ly/35gz2Ne and 9441041,  bit.ly/2L42yim ) and two patent applications (20160333097,  bit.ly/3nrXTnb   and 20160075786,  bit.ly/3onwNPH ).

The two patents, which are active as of the publishing of this article (  here  ,  here   ) license a potential treatment for HIV, not the glycoprotein or “HIV component” as the headline of the article claims. While Fauci is listed as an inventor, among other authors, the patents are actually assigned or owned ( here ) by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The treatment being explored, as stated in the patents, would involve the administration of a “therapeutically effective amount of an agent that interferes with the interaction of GP120 and α4 integri”, meaning it would prevent the interaction between a key protein in HIV and a protein in the cells of the body, “thereby treating the HIV infection”.

THE REPORT

As evidence in support of the claim that COVID-19 was “laboratory-created” using GP120, and in an attempt to  link it to Fauci by mentioning the patents his name appears on, Corsi refers to a report visible here  here    , that has not been peer-reviewed. It was published on January 31, 2020 and was withdrawn on February 2, 2020 ( archive.vn/IxsEn ). In the comments section of the article, authors later said they did not intend to “feed into the conspiracy theories”.

The report, published in the very early days of the virus and entitled “Uncanny similarity of unique inserts in the 2019-nCoV spike protein to HIV-1 gp120 and Gag”, claimed to have found “4 insertions in the spike glycoprotein (S) which are unique to the 2019-nCoV and are not present in other coronaviruses”, adding that these four “unique” spikes were similar to some DNA sequences in HIV-1 (the most common type of HIV).

EXPLAINING FOUR INSERTIONS, HIV AND GLYCOPROTEINS

Dr. Catherine Blish ( here ) , infectious disease specialist at Stanford Medicine, told Reuters via email that the “insertions” mentioned in the withdrawn report, refer to the “extra amino acids, the building blocks of proteins”, that are found in the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2.

The spike protein of coronavirus, Blish explained, is the protein that “mediates entry into the cell”. In HIV, the analogous entry protein is the gp160 (which is composed by the two glycoproteins gp120 and gp41 here ). “These viral proteins interact with cellular proteins to allow the virus enter a cell”, she said.

In the patents mentioned in this claim, the potential treatment in question focused on impeding the interaction of the glycoprotein gp120 with the proteins in the body ( here ).

Blish explained the issue with the withdrawn paper’s author’s interpretation: “the authors did not include bat coronaviruses, including the bat strain that bears the strongest resemblance to SARS-CoV-2.” ( here )

Blish referred to another paper here   co-authored by virus expert Feng Gao ( here ) which concluded that the highlighted patterns in the withdrawn report are not HIV-specific. According to Gao’s paper, the motifs were also found in at least “100 identical or highly homologous” sequences in “host genes of mammalian, insects, bacterial and others” and also in “all kinds of viruses from bacteriophage, influenza, to giant eukaryotic.”

According to Blish, this suggests that this sequence patterns are “merely common motifs in nature.”

According to Gao’s paper, the four insertions mentioned in the withdrawn report are present not only in SARS-CoV-2 but also in three sequences of bat coronavirus found in 2018 and 2013.

A team of global health scientists and infection preventionists at the Meedan Digital Health Lab, a public health information hub, also addressed the false claims around HIV and SARS-CoV-2 here .

Coincidentally, experts noted that in addition to SARS-CoV-2 and HIV, the DNA protein sequences mentioned in the withdrawn study “are found in many different organisms, including the ones that cause cryptosporidiosis and malaria”. Further evaluation shows that “these proteins are not unique to coronaviruses and are common source of viral biology in a huge number of ailments caused by a variety of actors”.

Fact checker Health Feedback addressed the withdrawn report here and found that “the sequences analyzed by the study authors were so short that it is easy to find similarities to a wide variety of organisms”.

Other scientists took to Twitter to refute the paper’s findings here , here .

“While we need to sequence and understand more bat and other animal coronaviruses to fully understand the source of SARS-CoV-2, there is no evidence to support the idea that it is manmade from HIV”, Dr. Blish assured.

Reuters previously debunked other false claims about Dr. Fauci, which has been a frequent target of misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic  here   ,  here  ,  here  .

VERDICT

False. Evidence so far suggests SARS-CoV-2 is a natural, not man-made, virus. An article falsely links patents for a possible treatment for HIV, in which Dr. Fauci is listed as a co-inventor and refers to a withdrawn article refuted by scientific experts, to claim the virus that causes COVID-19 was bioengineered.

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

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