The Coronavirus Conspiracies
Claim: The Virus was made in a lab
This is the claim that the virus came from a lab and didn't come from the Wuhan Seafood Market
Maybe it's my earlier years of binging conspiracy videos but I never rejected the possibility. That being said, I understand my own bias and should actively avoid encouraging it. So I will look at the evidence both for and against the virus coming from a lab and let the evidence be my guide to opinion.
With all of these conspiracy claim fact-checking pages, my view changes as I write because I'm reviewing as much high-quality evidence as possible. So that being said, I'm open to good evidence, so let's get into this. Did the virus come from a lab?
This is a tricky one to answer because unlike something like radiowave safety or the utility of facemasks, this isn't something that you can directly observe. What we have to do is weigh up the evidence on both sides and see which looks more likely. That being said, we shouldn't automatically say "it came from a lab I know it", because what is that based on? Gut feelings? That's no use to me or anyone else, so let's review the evidence.
One of the "ah-ha!" things I've seen used to support this is President Donald Trump saying he's seen with a high degree of confidence that the virus came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. He then says he can't tell the reporter how he knows this. Additionally, Mike Pompeo the US Secretary of State said that there is a significant amount of evidence to suggest this, and that the best experts think it's man-made so he has no reason to doubt them. He immediately pulls a 180 and says he agrees that the virus wasn't man made.
As I've said many times in these pages, individual testimony isn't reliable and I thought we were in the business of being sceptical of government. Let's put individual claims aside as this isn't hugely helpful.
So let's see where the Virology lab is. On the Wuhan Institute of Virology lab's contact page, they say their address is Xiao Hong Shan No.44, Wuhan, P.R.China.
Looking at a map, the Wuhan Institute of Virology is 14 km away from the supposed origin of the virus.
The elephant in the room
It's a virology lab, that studies and keeps viruses.
The issue isn't whether or not the virology houses viruses,
the issue is whether they housed the Sars-Cov-2 virus,
and whether or not they leaked it out to the public.
So to be convinced of this I'd need to find evidence of:
-The virus being man-made
-The virology lab having the current Covid19 strain
-That they let it out
The benefit of the doubt here would be that it's still
possible that this happened. Absolutely, it's possible.
The virus could have possibly been held in the virology lab
and leaked out, and that person who leaked it travelled to the seafood market and started the infection. So if you recall from the
criteria needed for legititmate conspiracies:
-It needs to be possible in premise (check)
-It needs to be possible in practice (check)
-It needs to be supported by evidence (no check)
Usually it's really easy to find information to back your claims up just by Googling "proof virus came from lab", but I honestly struggled to find anything doing this. Considering this is how I used to get my information, this shows me that the information supporting this is pretty absent of substance. Pure speculation doesn't interest me, so let's move on.
Evidence against this
There is more to unpack here than you might immediately see. This claim usually collects a few things together:
-The virus is man-made.
-The virus couldn't have come from a seafood market.
-Viruses can't jump from animals to humans.
-The virus is too infectious, it must be a bio-weapon.
Let's tackle each sub-claim at a time and check their validity.
If you think this the first thing I would ask is why do you think that? What is this assumption based on?
Let's look at the history of pandemics. In 1918 the H1N1 (Spanish Flu) pandemic started in the USA. According to the CDC's page:
"The 1918 influenza pandemic was the most severe pandemic in recent history. It was caused by an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin. Although there is not universal consensus regarding where the virus originated, it spread worldwide during 1918-1919."
Avian means relating to birds. In the American Journal for Microbiology in an article titled Evolution and Ecology of Influenza A Viruses cited by 1,436 other articles, they write the following:
"In this review we examine the hypothesis that aquatic birds are the primordial source of all influenza viruses in other species and study the ecological features that permit the perpetuation of influenza viruses in aquatic avian species."
"Phylogenetic analysis of the nucleotide sequence of influenza A virus RNA segments coding for the spike proteins (HA, NA, and M2) and the internal proteins (PB2, PB1, PA, NP, M, and NS) from a wide range of hosts, geographical regions, and influenza A virus subtypes support the following conclusions[...](iii) All of the influenza A viruses of mammalian sources originated from the avian gene pool, and it is possible that influenza B viruses also arose from the same source."
"The different virus lineages are predominantly host specific, but there are periodic exchanges of influenza virus genes or whole viruses between species, giving rise to pandemics of disease in humans, lower animals, and birds."
"The influenza viruses currently circulating in humans and pigs in North America originated by transmission of all genes from the avian reservoir prior to the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic; some of the genes have subsequently been replaced by others from the influenza gene pool in birds."
"There is evidence that most new human pandemic strains and variants have originated in southern China."
It's worth mentioning that his was published in 1992. It's also worth noting that Wuhan is in south-east China.
In a National Institute of Health study titled The Origin and Virulence of the 1918 “Spanish” Influenza Virus, they write:
"Periodically, genetic material from avian virus strains is transferred to virus strains infectious to humans by a process called reassortment. Human influenza virus strains with recently acquired avian surface and internal protein-encoding RNA segments were responsible for the pandemic influenza outbreaks in 1957 and 1968."
"Since pigs can be infected with both avian and human virus strains, and various reassortants have been isolated from pigs."
Checking some of the references in this study reveals some interesting evidence for the transmission of viruses between species.
In a The Lancet article title Human Influenza A H5N1 Virus Related to a Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza Virus which is about a boy dying from the H5N1 virus, they write:
"nucleotide sequence analysis of all gene segments revealed that the human virus A/Hong Kong/156/97 was genetically closely related to the avian A/chicken/Hong Kong/258/97."
"Although direct contact between the sick child and affected chickens has not been established, our results suggest transmission of the virus from infected chickens to the child without another intermediate mammalian host acting as a "mixing vessel". This event illustrates the importance of intensive global influenza surveillance."
Here's a page from the CDC titled Influenza Pandemics of the 20th Century.
On the subject of the 1957 Asian Influenza H2N2 viral outbreak they write:
"The virus was quickly recognized as an influenza A virus by complement fixation tests. However, tests defining the HA antigen of the virus showed it to be unlike any previously found in humans."
If you recall from the study above, influenza A originates from avian origin.
There is much more on these studies I haven't mentioned, but I feel like the scientific evidence for viruses being able to cross between species, and that they already have is massively overwhelming. So animal to human transmission is possible. Let's move on.
So this one's harder to go over, but again, all we can do is weight up the evidence and see what scenario is most plausible.
So how could we realistically prove or at the very least suggest that the Sars-Cov-2 virus was or wasn't man-made? That isn't that easy of a question to answer. What does this really mean? Suspicion doesn't help anyone; suspicion is subjective. We're after objective evidence.
How would you personally know if a microscopic virus was man-made or natural? You couldn't. Who would? Firstly, people able to study the virus, and people who also know how to differentiate between indications of bio-engineering.
Luckily, that's already been done. In the Nature Medicine journal in a study called The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2, they write:
"computational analyses predict that the interaction is not ideal7 and that the RBD sequence is different from those shown in SARS-CoV to be optimal for receptor binding"
It is improbable that SARS-CoV-2 emerged through laboratory manipulation of a related SARS-CoV-like coronavirus. As noted above, the RBD of SARS-CoV-2 is optimized for binding to human ACE2 with an efficient solution different from those previously predicted7,11. Furthermore, if genetic manipulation had been performed, one of the several reverse-genetic systems available for betacoronaviruses would probably have been used19. However, the genetic data irrefutably show that SARS-CoV-2 is not derived from any previously used virus backbone"
"Given the similarity of SARS-CoV-2 to bat SARS-CoV-like coronaviruses2, it is likely that bats serve as reservoir hosts for its progenitor."
"Malayan pangolins (Manis javanica) illegally imported into Guangdong province contain coronaviruses similar to SARS-CoV-221. Although the RaTG13 bat virus remains the closest to SARS-CoV-2 across the genome1, some pangolin coronaviruses exhibit strong similarity to SARS-CoV-2 in the RBD, including all six key RBD residues"
"It is possible that a progenitor of SARS-CoV-2 jumped into humans, acquiring the genomic features described above through adaptation during undetected human-to-human transmission. Once acquired, these adaptations would enable the pandemic to take off and produce a sufficiently large cluster of cases to trigger the surveillance system that detected it"
"the evidence shows that SARS-CoV-2 is not a purposefully manipulated virus, it is currently impossible to prove or disprove the other theories of its origin described here. However, since we observed all notable SARS-CoV-2 features, including the optimized RBD and polybasic cleavage site, in related coronaviruses in nature, we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible."
This paper is authored by
Kristian Andersen who is Director of Infectious Disease Genomics at Scripps Research.
Andrew Rambaut from the University of Edinburgh who's specialism is in the evolution of emerging human viral pathogens
W. Ian Lipkin who is a professor of Neurology and Pathology and Cell Biology at the Mailman school of public health.
Professor Edward Holmes of the University of Sydney who "is known for his work on the evolution and emergence of infectious diseases, particularly the mechanisms by which RNA viruses jump species boundaries to emerge in humans and other animals".
Robert F. Garry of Tulane University, who's research includes molecular mechanisms of viral pathogenesis.
Now ask yourself: Are all of these specialised scientists who study virology and have spent years of their lives studying this subject all lying and in colusion with some nefarious shadow entity or all being paid off, or do they perhaps know more about virology, infectious diseases, and biology than you?
What is this man-made claim based on? A gut feeling? Cynicism? None of that interests me. Based on the evidence provided by virologisits, we can say that with the available evidence, that this virus is more than likely not man-made.
Is that it? One paper?!
While not conclusive, let's take a moment to weigh up the evidence. Speculation isn't evidence, we're after objective evidence.
Argument against it being man-made: Paper by five experts in virology stating that this virus being man-made is not plausible. This paper published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.
The argument for it being man-made: It's a possibility. Gut feelings. Trump and Pompeo said so.
Dispite the claims by alternative-thinkers, viruses can and have jumped between species. I don't know where this denial comes from. From the people who I have questioned on this, the response comes down to, "I just don't think so." Considering the science says otherwise, I don't get it.
It's possible the virus came from a lab, but based on the characteristics of the virus itself as studied by experts in virology, it's not likely and not plausible.
Until a smoking gun emerges and the counter-evidence is substantial, I maintain that this virus is more than likely not man-made and the evidence doesn't support that assertion.
Of course more information will come out, but until then I'm not convinced.