Bengaluru: It’s a tempting theory in the face of the strengthening coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic. A sophisticated laboratory in “evil” China developed the deadly virus for potential use as a bioweapon, but some sloppy Joe messed up and the virus leaked. A global pandemic arose and the world found itself on the brink of catastrophe.
It’s a tempting theory, but a theory is all it is.
A conspiracy theory, which has repeatedly been debunked by leading scientific voices from around the world but still finds a way to re-emerge on social media.
Senior Congress leader and former Union minister Manish Tewari is the latest to propound this theory, retweeting a British tabloid report to call for an investigation into the “act of terror” that is coronavirus.
CoronaVirus is a bio-weapon that went rouge or was made to go rouge. It is an act of Terror. International investigation conducted either under auspices of ICJ or ICC is necessary to unearth the truth & bring focus back on eradicating Biological Weapons. https://t.co/UWX5I5ftx0
— Manish Tewari (@ManishTewari) March 13, 2020
Nearly every day over the past couple of months, at least one variant of the theory has done the rounds on social media. In all such stories, the virus originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), an actual high-profile establishment in Wuhan, the town where the virus originated.
But the scientific consensus is clear — humans could not have possibly bio-engineered or mutated a virus to create the novel coronavirus, known officially as SARS-CoV-2.
The world wakes up to a pandemic
COVID-19, a disease that manifests in flu-like symptoms, was first reported in Wuhan last December. It has since reportedly spread to over 100 countries and infected over 1 lakh people, including the British and Iranian health ministers.
Over 4,000 people have died globally, with China and Italy accounting for the bulk of the fatalities. India reported its first COVID-19 death Thursday — a 76-year-old man from Karnataka — but the number of cases remains below 100. The three Kerala students who were reported to be India’s first COVID-19 patients have been cured.
With coronavirus now officially qualified as a pandemic, there has been an explosion of misinformation about the disease and rumours — their proliferation fast-tracked by social media.
Biological weapons, which are banned worldwide by a multilateral framework signed under the auspices of the United Nations, are biological agents like bacteria that have been weaponised for use against an adversary.
One of the most notorious instances of their use can be traced back to the 1980s, when some followers of the self-styled spiritual leader Osho allegedly sought to poison an entire town with Salmonella to reduce voter turnout and gain power in a local election. Over 700 people allegedly took ill as a result of the attack.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) — the focal point of all rumours — is located in the same city as the wet market (where animals are sold for meat, as opposed to a dry market that sells durable goods like electronics or clothes) that is considered to be the origin of the virus.
It contains China’s only biosafety level 4 lab. Biosafety levels are biocontainment protocols that are in place to isolate potentially dangerous biological agents. The highest level is 4, and this is the likely reason why the rumours originated.
According to one version of the rumours about the origin of the coronavirus pandemic, Chinese spies stole the virus from a lab in Canada, then edited and mutated it into a biological weapon. They then leaked it from the state-owned WIV.
This isn’t the first disease suspected to be a bioweapon either. When the 2002-03 outbreak occurred, a Russian scientist claimed that the SARS virus was a mixture of measles and mumps, and was made in a Chinese lab.
But it’s not just China that’s being accused. Many Chinese citizens and even officials have claimed that COVID-19 is a bioweapon made by the United States. The mutual distrust between the two countries has seen officials from both sides trading allegations.
— Tom Cotton (@SenTomCotton) March 12, 2020
2/2 CDC was caught on the spot. When did patient zero begin in US? How many people are infected? What are the names of the hospitals? It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation! pic.twitter.com/vYNZRFPWo3
— Lijian Zhao 赵立坚 (@zlj517) March 12, 2020
Why the rumours are wrong
But many factors go against the theory that COVID-19 is a bioweapon.
For one, it is not a deadly disease for most people. Nearly 70,000 people have recovered from the disease and just over 4,000 people have died so far globally. The deaths have mostly been among the elderly, with people under the age of 50 typically exhibiting mild symptoms like high fever, coughing, cold, and, sometimes, nausea or diarrhoea, but recovering in a few days.
There are many other pathogens that are way more deadly than SARS-CoV-2 and would thus make for a far efficient bioweapon. One such example is Ebola, which is estimated to have killed 11,308 of around 28,610 (suspected, probable or confirmed) patients — roughly 40 per cent — in the three West Asian countries worst affected by the 2014-16 outbreak.
Furthermore, geopolitical analysts have stated that funding for biodefence research has dwindled in China since it entered the nuclear programme in the 1960s.
Scientists, meanwhile, have condemned the idea that the virus originated in a lab.
The article retweeted by Tewari quotes a law professor, Francis Boyle, as citing a February 2020 study by French and Canadian researchers that reportedly attributes the rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2 to a specific protein receptor.
The ‘spike’ protein of the virus, which is found in many other viruses too, is what actually causes the virus to latch on to a host cell. The authors of the paper explain that this virus’ spike protein is different from that of others, enabling a better and faster spread through humans. This is called a ‘gain of function’.
Boyle cites the ‘gain of function’ to claim the virus was genetically edited. However, the news report itself clarifies that “Professor Boyle is jumping the gun slightly, as the paper does not specifically refer to genetic engineering”.
“The medical definition for gain-of-function, also known as GOF, is a mutation that confers new or enhanced activity on a protein. While gain-of-function research can involve genetic engineering, it can also be naturally occurring in the virus,” the news report adds.
A common argument to back the bioweapon conspiracy theory seems to be: Why do so many new viruses come from China? The answer lies simply in the unregulated mixing of animals and humans in the country, thanks to rampant legal and illegal trade. Experts have predicted constantly that wildlife markets in the country are a very efficient breeding ground for new zoonotic viruses that can transfer from animals to humans.
The Federation of American Scientists, a nonprofit thinktank for global policy, has launched a project to debunk Coronavirus myths, where it has clarified that there is no evidence of the virus being a bioweapon.
Genetic analysis reveals source
The SARS-CoV-2 virus came from animals, most likely bats.
The novel virus mutates rapidly, and it is believed that there are already two kinds of mutations infecting the human population. But a log of these mutations and changes is stored within the virus’s genetic code, which can be analysed and traced back to its origins to a great degree of accuracy.
Genome sequencing and analysis performed by multiple independent scientists from different countries are open and accessible to everyone around the globe. Scientists who have analysed these have confirmed that the virus came from wildlife.
In an article for The New England Journal of Medicine, a prestigious journal, US researchers have confirmed that the virus’ genetic material “implicates a bat-origin virus infecting unidentified animal species sold in China’s live-animal markets”.
Swiss scientists at ETH Zürich, a leading university specialising in science and technology, used their own statistical model to work on the publicly available genome databases. “The widespread hypothesis that the first person was infected at an animal market in November is still plausible,” the institute said in a statement earlier this month. “Our data effectively rule out the scenario that the virus circulated in humans for a long time before that.”
An international team of researchers from the US, UK and Australia have said in a preprint — a study that is yet to be peer-reviewed — suggests that SARS-CoV-2 is a brand new virus and could in no way have been engineered by humans.
The virus jumped from a bat to humans through an intermediate animal, which was initially suspected to be a snake and later a pangolin as suggested by researchers at the South China Agricultural University.
An endangered animal, the pangolin is used in traditional Chinese medicine, which makes it a common target for illegal trafficking. This means it could have been present in the wet market where the virus is believed to have originated.
However, new genetic analysis suggests that the pangolin could probably not have transmitted the virus. The search for this elusive species is still on.
The main reason the virus originated in Wuhan is the coincidental presence of a carrier animal in one of the many big wet markets there.
The fact that China’s only level 4 biosafety lab is located in the same place is simply a coincidence.