Here is a 3D image of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), formerly … [+] known as the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV). (Image: Getty)
Don’t you just love conspiracy theories? Especially when two groups of people have pretty much the same conspiracy theory about each other?
Some folks including politicians in both the U.S. and China have suggested that the COVID-19 coronavirus (SARS-CoV2) that’s causing the pandemic may actually be a bioweapon that was manufactured in a lab. The only difference between their conspiracy theories is who’s being accused of doing the manufacturing.
On the one corner are some people in the U.S. who are hinting or in some cases openly claiming that China put together this virus. For example, look at what Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) tweeted out back on January 30:
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Then, Steve Mosher wrote on February 22 an opinion piece for the New York Post entitled, “Don’t buy China’s story: The coronavirus may have leaked from a lab.” Take a wild guess at what Mosher wrote about in his piece. By the way, Mosher is not a biomedical scientist, but instead is the president of the Population Research Institute and author of book called Bully of Asia: Why China’s ‘Dream’ Is the New Threat to World Order. So chances are that he didn’t love China in the first place. But who knows, love works in mysterious ways.
So what evidence have Cotton, Mosher, and others provided to support these suggestions or claims? Incriminating pictures? Suspicious emails? Some awkward selfies? Any kind of scientific evidence?
Well, as Cotton picked out, there just happens to be a biosafety level-four (BSL-4) laboratory situated in Wuhan, China, the city where the whole outbreak started. Oh, and the lab had housed some types of coronaviruses among other pathogens. Yep, that’s the evidence.
As you probably know, proximity alone should not imply guilt. That would be like claiming that you farted whenever there’s a bad smell and you happen to be in the vicinity. Sure you may have intestines but that doesn’t mean that every foul stench emanated from your guts.
Plus, it’s a lot easier to leak a pocket of air though your butt than a virus from a BSL-4 facility. BSL-4 facilities maintain the highest level of security among bio-laboratories since they do work on dangerous potentially life-threatening agents such as the Ebola, Lassa fever, and Marburg viruses. So it’s not as if the people inside these labs are playing throw and catch with the viruses and stuffing them into their pockets. To be designated as a BSL-4, the lab has to have the appropriate ventilation systems, reinforced walls, security systems, and construction to keep the wrong things inside and the right things outside.
Is it unusual then to have a BSL-4 facility in a city like Wuhan, China? Not really. There are already at least six BSL-4 facilities in the U.S. in Atlanta, GA, Frederick, MD, Galveston, TX, Hamilton, MT, and San Antonio, TX. According to the Federation of American Scientists website, seven others may be planned, under construction, or possibly finished in various cities such as Boston, MA, and Richmond, VA. These labs in the U.S. also study and house a range of dangerous pathogens. So again having a lab that studies bad pathogens does not mean that the lab released anything.
Not to be outdone, some in China have made similar suggestions, except that it’s the U.S. that built the virus and released it in China. Well, that’s original. For example, take a look at these three tweets from Zhao Lijian, Spokesperson and Deputy Director General, Information Department for the Foreign Ministry of China:
Yes, the claim is that the U.S. released a virus in China so that the U.S. can then eventually suffer the consequences of the spreading virus just a couple months later. Makes a whole lotta sense, except that it doesn’t. Where exactly is the real evidence that the U.S. military created SARS-CoV2?
The back-and-forth dialogue has continued with President Donald Trump then referring to SARS-CoV2 as the “Chinese Virus” as can be seen here:
When questioned why he was using this label rather than the real scientific name of the virus, Trump claimed that it was in response to the claim that the U.S. military had created the virus. The video accompanying the following tweet shows the exchange:
Back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth.
So, it looks like conspiracy theorists on both sides haven’t really provided any compelling evidence that SARS-CoV2 was produced in a lab, whether in the U.S., in China, or in the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
In fact, there is not only a lack of evidence supporting these conspiracy theories, there has been growing strong scientific evidence against both of them. Scientists, you know the ones who are actually trying to find the truth and solve a problem rather than blame people, have been conducting genetic analyses to determine where the virus came from and how it ended up infecting humans. Although viruses aren’t exactly like people as they don’t seem to have feelings or spread rumors, viruses do have genetic material like people, except their genetic material is not quite as complex as those of humans. Nevertheless, like humans, viruses still pass along such materials when they replicate and evolve. It’s not as simple as The Jerry Springer Show using genetic testing to find out if a guy is someone’s father, but scientists can use more advanced genetic analysis to figure out the origins, the “family tree” of SARS-CoV2.
Indeed, strong clues had already emerged by February 26, 2020, when a Perspectives piece was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. In the piece, David M. Morens, M.D. and Peter Daszak, Ph.D. from the National Institute of Health (NIH) and Jeffery K. Taubenberger, M.D., Ph.D. wrote: “Of course, scientists tell us that SARS-CoV-2 did not escape from a jar: RNA sequences closely resemble those of viruses that silently circulate in bats, and epidemiologic information implicates a bat-origin virus infecting unidentified animal species sold in China’s live-animal markets.”
This wasn’t exactly a case of same bat channel, same bat time. But the first, more deadlier SARS virus seemed to cause the 2002-2003 outbreak after it had managed to jump from bats to humans via intermediate hosts such as masked palm civets. Yes, some masked beings may have inadvertently partnered with bats to bring the original SARS virus to humans. So it wouldn’t be too surprising if something like that happened again for SARS-CoV2.
This illustration shows a close-up of the protein spikes on SARS-CoV2. (Image: Getty)
Even more evidence of a natural rather than human-made origin for SARS-CoV2 has emerged from a study described in a research letter just published in Nature Medicine. In the letter, a research team (Kristian G. Andersen from The Scripps Research Institute, Andrew Rambaut from the University of Edinburgh, W. Ian Lipkin from the Mailman School of Public Health of Columbia University, Edward C. Holmes from The University of Sydney and Robert F. Garry from Tulane University) described how they had analyzed the genetic sequences that code for the protein spikes on the surface of SARS-CoV2. The virus looks sort of like a medieval mace with multiple spikes sticking out from its spherical shape. These spikes aren’t just for show as the virus uses them to latch on to a cell that it wants to invade and then push its way into the cell. Very medieval stuff.
Apparently, portions of these spike proteins are so effective in targeting specific receptors on human cells that it is hard to imagine humans manufacturing them, not with known existing technology. The researchers then concluded that this feature and thus the new coronavirus could have in all likelihood only evolved over time naturally. You see humans can make useful stuff like ride-sharing apps but are still quite puny compared to nature when it comes to making stuff like viruses.
In fact, the research team found that the SARS-CoV-2 structure in general is quite different from what humans would have likely concocted. If a human had wanted to create a viral weapon, he or she would have started with the structure of a virus that’s already known to cause illness in people. Naturally, if you want to make a weapon, you may want to start with something like a grenade launcher rather than a smoothie maker, not that the virus looks like either. Instead, the structure of SARS-CoV2 is quite similar to those of viruses known to infect bats and pangolins.
So all of this further supports the theory that the virus jumped from bats to humans via some intermediate animal host. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the virus started causing trouble as soon as it started infecting humans. An alternative possibility is that it jumped a longer time ago and hung out among humans for a while before eventually evolving into its current troublesome selves. This latter possibility would be somewhat analogous to inviting someone to live with you because he or she initially seemed relatively harmless but then over time finding out that this flat mate has become a terror.
The findings from the genetic analyses are consistent with how SARS-CoV2 is currently behaving. The virus is not acting like a bio-weapon right now. The best bio-weapons kill at a much higher rate and can be readily transported and released. Imagine being told that a bio-weapon might take the lives of 1% to 3.4% of the people that it infects but you don’t quite know specifically which ones. The difference between SARS-CoV2 and pathogens like the Ebola Virus or anthrax is like the difference between a bunch of sofas and a collection of missiles. Sure, the former can cause harm but not in a predictable and consistent manner. If someone actually decided to develop SARS-CoV2 as a bio-weapon, that person needs to find a new job.
So there you have it: scientific evidence trumping conspiracy theories. Will all of these scientific findings finally quash the “virus-was-made-in-a-lab-and-it-is-your-fault” rhetoric between the politicians and on social media? Probably not. Since when has science stopped such political rhetoric. Maybe, though, it will get more people to focus on the much more important matter at hand: trying to control this pandemic together.