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Endonuclease fingerprint indicates a synthetic origin of SARS-CoV-2

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To prevent future pandemics, it is important that we understand whether SARS-CoV-2 spilled over directly from animals to people, or indirectly in a laboratory accident. The genome of SARS-COV-2 contains a peculiar pattern of unique restriction endonuclease recognition sites allowing efficient dis- and re-assembly of the viral genome characteristic of synthetic viruses. Here, we report the likelihood of observing such a pattern in coronaviruses with no history of bioengineering. We find that SARS-CoV-2 is an anomaly, more likely a product of synthetic genome assembly than natural evolution. The restriction map of SARS-CoV-2 is consistent with many previously reported synthetic coronavirus genomes, meets all the criteria required for an efficient reverse genetic system, differs from closest relatives by a significantly higher rate of synonymous mutations in these synthetic-looking recognitions sites, and has a synthetic fingerprint unlikely to have evolved from its close relatives. We report a high likelihood that SARS-CoV-2 may have originated as an infectious clone assembled in vitro.

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Detection of SARS-coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2) specific CD4+ and CD8+ T cells in SARS-CoV-2-unexposed donors has been explained by the presence of T cells primed by other coronaviruses. However, based on the relative high frequency and prevalence of cross-reactive T cells, we hypothesized CMV may induce these cross-reactive T cells. Stimulation of pre-pandemic cryo-preserved PBMCs with SARS-CoV-2 peptides revealed that frequencies of SARS-CoV-2-specific T cells were higher in CMV-seropositive donors. Characterization of these T cells demonstrated that membrane-specific CD4+ and spike-specific CD8+ T cells originate from cross-reactive CMV-specific T cells. Spike-specific CD8+ T cells recognize SARS-CoV-2 spike peptide FVSNGTHWF (FVS) and dissimilar CMV pp65 peptide IPSINVHHY (IPS) presented by HLA-B*35:01. These dual IPS/FVS-reactive CD8+ T cells were found in multiple donors as well as severe COVID-19 patients and shared a common T cell receptor (TCR), illustrating that IPS/FVS-cross-reactivity is caused by a public TCR. In conclusion, CMV-specific T cells cross-react with SARS-CoV-2, despite low sequence homology between the two viruses, and may contribute to the pre-existing immunity against SARS-CoV-2.