Is the COVID-19 Coronavirus an Escaped Bioweapon?

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Following the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak in 2003, and the more recent COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in 2019, conspiracy theorists quickly claimed that the viruses were man-made, and had possibly leaked from a secret biological weapons lab. In both cases, the initial impetus for the claims seems to have come from flawed scientific publications.

In the case of SARS, Sergei Kolesnikov, a Russian scientist and a member of the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences, claimed that the virus was a synthesis of measles and mumps[1]. However, both measles and mumps are paramyxoviruses, while SARS virus is a coronavirus. The two families are entirely different in their structure and method of infection.

In the recent COVID-19 outbreak, researchers in India posted an analysis on the unrefereed bioRxiv website, claiming that the virus contained gene sequences found in HIV – implying that new virus could be a laboratory-generated mutant[2]. The authors posted a link to their paper on Twitter, and their claim gained attention globally.

Genomics experts quickly pointed out that the short gene sequences are commonly found in many coronaviruses, and are commonplace in nature. The paper was withdrawn, but not before the damage had been done – triggering rumors throughout the Internet.

A group of 27 prominent public health scientists in nine countries published a paper in The Lancet condemning the misinformation and rumors[3]. The scientists cite researchers throughout the world who “overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife, as have so many other emerging pathogens.”

Not surprisingly, conspiracy theorists in different countries place the blame for the viral outbreak in different places. In China, it is widely believed that the viruses are weapons released by the United States to cripple the Chinese economy. In the US, many believe that the viruses escaped from a secret bioweapons research program at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Why Do So Many Viruses Originate in China?

New viral outbreaks originate in many places. Both HIV and Ebola originated in Africa. But it seems that a disproportionate number come from China. To understand why, we need to talk about how people are exposed to new pathogens (infectious agents).

Every animal – including humans – play host to a microbes and viruses. Over time, the species develop a resistance to the pathogens that they carry.

When we’re exposed to another species, the pathogens that they carry can “cross over” to our species. When we are regularly exposed to a species – such as domestic livestock – we develop a resistance to the pathogens that they carry as well.

But wild animals may carry pathogens for which we have no resistance. When these infections cross over into humans, they can quickly spread.

In China, wild bird and wild animal markets are very popular[4]. Animals are often kept live, in cages, and slaughtered on-the-spot under very unsanitary conditions. These markets can expose people – and domestic animals – to new pathogens.

Furthermore, because these markets are often found in rural areas with poor medical care, diseases can become established and spread before they are detected.

Chinese authorities have attempted to crack down on wildlife markets, but in many cases, the markets have simply gone underground.

What Can We Do to Protect Ourselves?

China and other countries are working to crack down on wildlife markets and to improve food-handling and sanitation. These are important steps that will reduce the frequency of new epidemics, but will not eliminate them completely.

To prevent a disastrous global pandemic, we need to put in place effective monitoring systems to detect novel disease outbreaks early, and coordinate a response to isolate the disease and quickly develop treatments and vaccines.

In the United States, the agency responsible for responding to public health emergencies is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

President Trump’s proposed 2021 budgets cuts spending for the CDC by 19%,  including a 13 percent cut to programs under the category of “emerging and zoonotic infectious diseases.” (Zoonotic infectious diseases are those that spread from animals to people.) [5]

Further Reading

  1. SARS conspiracy theory, Wikipedia.
  2. Baseless Conspiracy Theories Claim New Coronavirus Was Bioengineered, FactCheck.org
  3. Statement in support of the scientists, public health professionals, and medical professionals of China combatting COVID-19, The Lancet.
  4. Is China Ground Zero for a Future Pandemic?, Smithsonian
  5. Amid coronavirus outbreak, Trump proposes slashing CDC budget, arsTECHNICA

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About Author

Lightning Science founder Robert Nicholson is a serial Internet entrepreneur with a passion for using science to improve life on earth.

He is also the founder of the ED Treatment Information Center, and an instructor in Computer Engineering at San Jose State University.

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