A Secret Bioweapon?!

Theory: COVID-19 is a bioweapon engineered from China… or actually, maybe the United States. Maybe from space. All bets are off.

The uncertainty and fear surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic has created a platform for numerous conspiracy theories, including those claiming that the coronavirus (i.e. COVID-19) was released by China (or the United States, depending on who you’re talking to) as a bioweapon. So today, we are going to take a full dive into this ever-growing conspiracy and de-bunk it, for good.

Where did it come from?

While the origin story behind this conspiracy theory is hard to pinpoint, research points to an article written in The Washington Times on January 26 as a potential source that began it all.1 This article claimed that COVID-19 was part of a Chinese biological weapons program, leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). They speculated that because WIV is a biosafety level 4 facility, employing the highest level of precautions to study the most fatal and easily transmitted diseases,2 the lab could have also taken part in manipulating the coronavirus as a biological weapon. Furthermore, they argued their theory as plausible, given the proximity of WIV to the Wuhan fish market (where COVID-19 was first identified). Their argument equating association to causation was quickly shut down by an article from the BBC as a “baseless claim” born out of speculation, without any supporting evidence.3

Nevertheless, this claim quickly took off, fueled by a series of tweets written by U.S Senator Tom Cotton, endorsing his support for the theories speculating COVID-19 as a bioweapon that may have been mistakenly or purposely released by the Chinese Government.4

Who is propagating it?

Numerous sources have since contributed to the ongoing propagation of this conspiracy theory. These include the words of President Trump calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” (though he has recently announced that he’ll pull back from calling it as such).5 Likewise, Senator Tom Cotton continues to feed this theory with his careful selection of words, such as his choice in calling COVID-19 the “Wuhan coronavirus.”6

And of course, this theory caught global attention when Lijian Zhao (deputy director of the Chinese Foreign Ministry Information Department) claimed in a series of tweets that “it might be U.S. army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan.”7 His claim was based on mere speculation that U.S. troops might have spread the virus when they attended the World Military Games in Wuhan, October 2019 (and mind you, since then, he too has retracted his comments).

But perhaps what has sustained this endless blame game is not these politicians (though, they are, without a doubt, at fault), but rather our fear of uncertainty. Sometimes, it’s easier to point fingers and blame each other than to accept the truth. In fact, I want to leave you – our reader – with a segment of an interview conducted by the Verge with John Cook, a cognitive science researcher at George Mason University. He explains,

When people feel vulnerable, believing in conspiracy theories gives them more of a feeling of control. It seems almost counter-intuitive because why would imagining that this is secret conspirators in a lab generating a virus, why does that make people feel more in control? Because at least that’s an explanation. We prefer to have causal explanations. We prefer to have meaning in the way that we understand what happens in the world. And conspiracy theories offer meaning. We’re more vulnerable to them when we feel powerless, when we feel threatened, and we need to get a sense of control.8

Why is it wrong?

Let’s talk about the science. What exactly is the evidence supporting or refuting this theory?

The perspective of the scientific community regarding the origin of COVID-19 has been consistent, with an overwhelming amount of evidence supporting the natural origin of COVID 19 (i.e. not a human-engineered bioweapon). Take this open letter published in Lancet on February 19. The authors of the letter commended the efforts of frontline healthcare workers in China and condemned the conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19 and wrote:

We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin. Scientists from multiple countries have published and analysed genomes of the causative agent, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), and they overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife, as have so many other emerging pathogens.9

A perspective piece from the New England Journal of Medicine further affirms this stance to say, “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.”10 Finally, a recent study published in Nature Medicine engages in an in-depth genetic analysis regarding the origin of COVID-19 (also known as SARS-CoV-2 in the broader scientific community) to conclude that, “it is improbable that SARS-CoV-2 emerged through laboratory manipulation of a related SARS-CoV-like coronavirus.”11

What are the ramifications of our misunderstanding?

As described by John Cook, conspiracy theories encourage mistrust in government and medical institutions that provide accurate information as this information is often in disagreement with the spreading conspiracies.7 When such mistrust develops, it may lead to a situation where we advertently or inadvertently ignore evidence-based suggestions made by these institutions, including the ones made for our own safety.

Furthermore, conspiracy theories (like the one discussed today) further reinforce and encourage xenophobia, i.e. prejudice and dislike for those perceived as an “other” or “foreign.” This type of myth incites hate and mistrust between and within countries, during a time where collaboration and compassion are critical in facing the unprecedented economic, medical, and global hardships of COVID-19 pandemic.

BUST OR NO BUST:

Our Myth: COVID-19 is a bioweapon, engineered from China or the United States.
Results: Bust. Myth Meter = 10/100 truthfulness.

Written by Lucia Juehea Lee.


References

1. Coronavirus may have originated in lab linked to China’s biowarfare program. The Washington Times. [Internet]. [cited 2020 Apr 7]. Available from: https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2020/jan/26/coronavirus-link-to-china-biowarfare-program-possi/
2. CDC LC Quick Learn: Recognize the four Biosafety Levels. CDC [Internet]. [cited 2020 Apr 10]. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/training/QuickLearns/biosafety/
3. Monitoring BBC. China coronavirus: Misinformation spreads online. BBC News [Internet]. 2020 Jan 30 [cited 2020 Apr 7]; Available from: https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-51271037
4. Tom Cotton on Twitter: “.@jaketapper This unnamed ‘expert’ says it’s ‘possible’ that coronavirus originated in Wuhan super lab, we ‘just don’t know how probable.’ I agree. Yet he calls it a ‘conspiracy theory’ that we shouldn’t ‘mention.’ I couldn’t disagree more. He’s wrong on two counts.” Twitter. [Internet]. [cited 2020 Apr 7]. Available from: https://twitter.com/SenTomCotton/status/1229189535705305093
5. President Trump says he’s pulling back from calling novel coronavirus the “China virus” – CNNPolitics [Internet]. [cited 2020 Apr 7]. Available from: https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/24/politics/donald-trump-pull-back-coronavirus-chinese-virus/index.html
6. Senator Cotton Closes Washington, D.C. Office. Tom Cotton U.S. Senator for Arkansas [Internet]. [cited 2020 Apr 7]. Available from: https://www.cotton.senate.gov/?p=press_release&id=1337
7. Lijian Zhao 赵立坚 on Twitter: “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!” Twitter. [Internet]. [cited 2020 Apr 7]. Available from: https://twitter.com/zlj517/status/1238111898828066823
8. Calma J. How to debunk COVID-19 conspiracy theories. The Verge. [Internet]. [cited 2020 Apr 7]. Available from: https://www.theverge.com/2020/3/20/21187983/debunk-coronavirus-conspiracy-theories-how-to-covid-19-news-science
9. Calisher C, Carroll D, Colwell R, Corley RB, Daszak P, Drosten C, et al. Statement in support of the scientists, public health professionals, and medical professionals of China combatting COVID-19. The Lancet. 2020 Mar 7;395(10226):e42–3. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30418-9
10. Morens DM, Daszak P, Taubenberger JK. Escaping Pandora’s Box — Another Novel Coronavirus. NEJM. 2020 Apr 2;382(14):1293–5. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMp2002106
11. Andersen KG, Rambaut A, Lipkin WI, Holmes EC, Garry RF. The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2. Nature Medicine. 2020 Mar 17;1–3. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-020-0820-9