Airline employees seen wearing masks as a precautionary measure against coronavirus at Mumbai international airport
Airline employees seen wearing masks as a precautionary measure against coronavirus at Mumbai international airport | Representational image | PTI
Text Size:

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.

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. 


Also Read: Mass tests are vital to contain coronavirus spread in India, experts say after first death


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

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.


Also Read: Iran’s mass graves can be seen from space, show coronavirus toll could be much higher


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. 


Also Read: Forget coronavirus, homoeopathy can’t cure anything. It’s a placebo, at best


 

Subscribe to our channels on YouTube & Telegram

Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it

India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.

But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.

ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.

Support Our Journalism

VIEW COMMENTS

29 COMMENTS

  1. This looks like a hard effort to prove something that you believe desperately but has no logic or explanation to back up. Even a school going kid would cook up stories better than presented here.

  2. Unfortunately..

    This well-meaning fact-finder is a Magnificent Effort!

    But that’s what it is: No, no, no, no, no…!
    I am not dog-whistling that there was any anthropogenic intervention in the mutation of SARS-CoV — I’m instead strictly referring to the article getting the names of the disease( “CoViD-19”; admittedly-confusing stupidity on part of WHO) and the virus ( SARS-CoV-2) itself.
    Continuing to invoke them interchangeably begets further ignorance.
    Is that clear to the fullest extent?

  3. get your facts clear, you geniass. check “my secret terrius episode 10” a documentary made in 2018 explaining this VIRUS.

  4. Your dumbass says “just” 4000 people have died globally,is 4000 people that less of a number and says theirs nothing to worry about,just amazing . I think the writer of this article should be the one to die first!!!!!

    • Breathe, breathe…

      Also, why indulge in sock-puppetry?

      I mean.. Many( read not ‘Some’) indeed do..!
      But not THAT SLOPPILY!

    • It’s over 100000 now in UK alone, China should take more responsibility and stop killing animals close to extinction for idiotic snake oil salesman cure for all…

  5. Your dumbass says “just” 4000 people have died globally,is 4000 people that less of a number and says theirs nothing to worry about,just amazing . I think the writer of this article should be the one to die first!!!!!

  6. With this article you have proved you are a true indian, please justify for the money paid to write this blog, or will you say to the Chinese bosses “Itnae mae, itna ich milega!! “.

    Maybe they didnt pay much due to corona recession, and you didnt research much due to lockdown immobility.

    How much chinese agencies paid to publish this article, that too a half hearted job in trying to convince readers, that China is “doodh ka dhula”.

  7. It is now established that COVID19 is Chinese sourced. You say millions have come in and gone out of Wuhan since December 2019. How is it that other than Wuhan no other city is affected while rest of the world it is spreading like wildfires. Latest China says this virus is gone from its territory. How is this possible? Italy is crippling but China is free makes the news from China most unreliable.

    • It is affected, “genius”!

      As for the unreliability of information, I would’ve agreed but then the Chinese are also “protecting their national security and sovereign integrity”( Nationalism) so..

  8. Looks like Chinese Company has bought much equity in ThePrint. As you seem to have a soft spot for chine. In today’s time, true journalism is dead money stops journalists perform their basic duty of delivering unfiltered truth to peoples.

  9. This strain (SARS-COV-2) has genomes identical to other viruses, mainly SARS-COV-1, HIV-1, H5N1, shows signs of ADE, like Dengue Fever, and the fact that it attacks the ACE-2 receptor. And consistent with spike gene altering, (research done at UNC to make a coronavirus that came from Bats highly virulent.) Zheng-li Shi (A researcher on that same project) is also head of virology at the Wuhan lab. The fact that it’s not that deadly makes me assume it was made for Vaccine research. And there is no way that it just magically went from bats to complete zoonotic jump without going through the other stages is highly unlikely

  10. The logic in this article is like that of a 4 year old child. It can’t be engineered because

    1) they would have made something deadlier, like ebola.

    That’s not a reason why it couldn’t be engineered. That’s just a theory why it seems unlikely And what a whopper of a bad theory as well! Why bother with something as dangerous as ebola when you can topple the western economy and kill “just” a few million. It’s the same reason armies prefer to win a war by conventional means rather by using nuclear weapons. Ebola would be a world disaster almost impossible to clean up, whereas this attack is far more controlled but accomplishes the same thing.

    2. The genetic sequence suggests a bat. Duh, so! If someone was bioengineering a virus they would start with something from nature and then modify it. The author clearly acknowledges that this virus is NOT entirely similar to the bat version It is modified…maybe from an intermediary animal Which nobody has yet to identify … So, how is that evidence that it is not engineered?

    I can really go in but it’s too dumb of an article to waste any more time. The author is either a dense illogical individual or is a paid stooge to by China to write this crappy illogical propaganda

    • I dunno how you define “smartness” given wayyyy too many socio-political factors but your “smartness” relies almost entirely on “coulda, shoulda, woulda” what-if canards.

      Also, it’s not engineered because even the modification points to nature — to dumb it down.

  11. Coincidence?…….in this game there are NO coincidences. This attack was planned, not for massive human mortality, but as a tool to induce a global economic meltdown (recession), which will happen soon and then miraculously a vaccine will be “developed”
    Those who have eyes to see, let them see and those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

  12. If the virus had originated in India, the very same author would have jumped first to accuse India, Modi and Hindutva of bio-terrorism. Because it is China, every Leftie author is gaslighting the issue. Traitors to the nation.

  13. Perhaps unfair to speculate that this is a bio weapon with evil intent. However the researchers have clearly documented the origin of the last few pandemics or whatever euphemism used for SAARS, H1N1, MERS, and now covid. The various flus whether Avian, swine, bat, or pangolin derived have all originated from the same geography. We are now seeing the need to redefine sovereign rights and perhaps even individual rights. Whatever originates as a gift from nature cannot be assumed to be available to eat, or burn, pollute or waste as a right. Whatever any country or society does now effects all globally. This virus may just help in creating change in social behaviour vis a vis nature.

    • All evidence points to bioengineered for vaccine testing. Zoonotic doesn’t happen overnight into full human to human transfer. The fact that it has genetic genome sequencing identical to function from multiple other viruses and altered spike protein. (UNC made a viral strain of bat coronavirus extremely more virulent buy altering the protein spike complex). And Zhengli Shi, being researcher #8 , on that project, and worked virology at Wigan’s BSL-4 bioengineering lab. The fact that it’s not that deadly I’d assume it was intended for vaccine research or dual function. If it was BioWare it easily would have been more deadly. Economical warfare well plausible. But what I’ve seen from it. It was for vaccine research to produce a vaccine against multiple viruses, or HIV-1 research. “Coronaviruses have been long researched to be a cure for HIV through bio engineering which receive $100s of million a year in funding”.

      • Who said it happened “overnight”?

        The global Patient Zero was discovered back in mid-December 2019 and has recovered fully by January 2020.

    • Not eating is in itself is challenge, let alone not burning/polluting!

      It requires a fundamental overhaul.

      And although writing is more difficult than speaking: It’s easier typed than done.

  14. Just because you have Ebola, doesn’t mean you don’t want to have Corona.
    Countries with sten guns still make bombs. Reasoning is fallacious .

    Yes that’s not to say that any lab deliberately developed Corona.

    Butt like Economics, Law, Religion and illness everyone assumes competence and feels qualified to comment with authority and summed up assumptions on such matters.
    Forget the seriousness and gravity of the matter.

Comments are closed.