Was COVID-19 made in a lab? Is a vaccine coming? A world virus expert helps separate fact from fiction

By Kevin Chen (student)

Even in lockdown, Trinity College students are still enjoying our regular ‘fireside chats’ (although it’s BYO fire at the moment) with leading professionals and academics. Yesterday our students heard from Professor Dave O’Connor, a world-leading virologist from the University of Wisconsin, about all things coronavirus. Here, Trinity biomedicine student Kevin Chen provides a recap.


Amid the current coronavirus crisis, panic abounds. We’ve seen tension between the public and the government, as well as irrational fears of those with Asian ethnicity. More than ever, we need accurate information, so it was a privilege to hear directly from virologist Professor Dave O’Connor, who answered many of our burning questions.

When asked about the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, Dave emphasised that it was not artificially designed in a lab and spread on purpose. 

‘Scientists simply don’t have that level of understanding of virus to design one from scratch,’ Dave explained. ‘If I were to design a deadly virus, I would need to use old strains as a template and add components of other deadly genes, but this is not the pattern we see in the SARS-Cov-2 virus genome.’ 

While there are other speculations about the virus coming from bats in the Wuhan wet market, or an accidental leak from a lower-level biosecurity lab, scientists are yet to discover how patient zero became infected. Nevertheless, this wouldn’t help us in containing the current outbreak of the virus, which is the real battle we currently face. 

In relation to this fight, Dave praised Australia and New Zealand for their effective travel bans and social distancing measures, and said that the situation is well controlled by the governments. When asked about testing kits, Dave explained the current nucleic acid and antibody testing used for detecting the virus, and encouraged a move towards a more accurate and economically accessible antigen testing, which would significantly benefit low-income communities as well as developing countries. 

As for the anticipation of a vaccine, Dave pointed out that at this stage, no scientist could confidently give an accurate date as to when a vaccine might be available. ‘The expectation given – 18 to 24 months – is only the ideal engineering procedure for lab testing before human trials. However, there is no guarantee that we will come up with a vaccine by then,’ says Dave. ‘Viruses have complex mechanisms and can evolve quickly to attack or hide from our immune system.’

Looking to the future, Dave believes the COVID-19 outbreak will remain with us for some time, and this may change the way we think and live. He supports the wearing of masks as a way of protecting others, and suggests we consider masks as a new sense of fashion. While there is currently a controversial solution being put forward, which involves exposing the virus to younger people, who appear to be less affected by the illness and have a lower death rate, to build herd immunity, Dave believes we are still not at the point where such a bold move needs to be made. 

Meanwhile, thousands of scientific researchers are collaborating around the world to develop a cure. Encouragingly, experiments in monkeys have shown that those infected with the virus and cured may develop sufficient antibodies to fight off a second infection.

While the future is uncertain, there is no doubt that we are adapting quickly to this pandemic and that the virus will be defeated one day. The key message from Dave was that this crisis is novel to all of us, and none of us are perfect. 

So instead of blaming the government, or China, or even the World Health Organization for making some mistakes along the way, people should see the bigger picture and deal with this pandemic rationally. It’s not a time to discriminate and hate each other, but a time to unite. Let’s use our best efforts to combat this virus together.

By Kevin Chen

22 Apr 2020