What caused the coronavirus? A skeptical look at theories about the Chinese origin of the epidemic


Much of the speculation in the U.S. comes from hawkish politicians against Beijing who want to defend the Trump administration. Scientists, on the other hand, are often the most reluctant to speak out, wishing to focus on the research that helps end the epidemic – not who, if anything, caused it.

But theories have spread widely, prompting a response from U.S. officials and President Trump himself. So here’s a skeptical view on three rapidly changing theories: one clearly false, one possible but not supported by known evidence, and one largely true.

1. The epidemic was linked to research on biological weapons

This article suggested that the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory and the Wuhan Institute of Virology had worked on biological warfare. Both institutions are real – they were hardly secret – but there is no evidence of that. Contacted by the Washington Post for a January 29 article, Shoham declined to comment further.

Experts suggesting the virus was of human origin relied on a misunderstanding of science. “Based on the genome and the properties of the virus, there is no evidence that it is a manufactured virus,” Richard Ebright, professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University, told The Post.

Robert Garry, a virologist at Tulane University in New Orleans, later told Science News in March that the virus was fundamentally different from something that would have been designed. “It has too many distinct features, some of which are counterintuitive,” he said.

Despite this, a Pew poll released last week found that almost 3 in 10 Americans thought the virus could have been made in the laboratory; Those on the Republican side of the spectrum were twice as likely to believe this as the Democrats.

2. The new coronavirus accidentally escaped from a laboratory

As the theory of biological weapons dissipated in February, it was replaced by a more plausible alternative: that a virus from a natural source could have accidentally leaked from one of the laboratories in Wuhan.

This idea has attracted high-profile political support. “We don’t know where it came from, and we need to get to the bottom of it,” Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) Told Fox News in mid-February, before rejecting the first suggestions that the virus had spread to a market in Wuhan. “We also know that, just a few kilometers from this food market, is the only Chinese super level 4 biosafety laboratory that studies human infectious diseases.”

Some scientists do not categorically reject this. In January, Ebright did not want to speak publicly about the idea of ​​a leak because it was too speculative. He changed his mind and told the Post this week that he thought it was “at least as likely” as an incident outside a laboratory, a position with which other scientists are not. Okay.

There is indirect evidence. Researchers at the Wuhan branch of the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention conducted research on bat coronaviruses, which some considered risky. The State Department has expressed concern over security standards for Wuhan laboratories in at least two cables, The Post newspaper Josh Rogin reported last week.

But that doesn’t prove that the new coronavirus was never studied in Wuhan, or that it leaked. “There is no evidence of a laboratory escape,” wrote Andrew Rambaut, a microbiologist at the University of Edinburgh, in an email. “The virus is just like a virus you would expect to see in wild bat populations, similar viruses have passed from non-human animals to animals in the past, so I see no reason to speculate further. on this subject. “

3. The Chinese government has misled the world about the coronavirus.

In the absence of direct evidence of a laboratory leak, Cotton and others noted that China had blocked the release of information about the early days of the epidemic. It’s true: the Post reported on China’s concealment of information about the epidemic on February 1.

Beijing has been slow to share data with foreigners, including experts from the World Health Organization. An Associated Press investigation released on Wednesday found that Chinese authorities had withheld information for six key days, allowing the virus to spread without restriction at a crucial time.

Scholars studying Chinese propaganda say the measures were an attempt to divert attention from the early failures of the coronaviruses. This can certainly be seen as a cover-up, although Beijing is not the only government accused of not disclosing information related to the virus.

The United States government has taken these theories into account. The New York Times reported over the weekend that intelligence agencies investigated but did not detect “no alarms in the Chinese government that analysts say will accompany the accidental leak of a deadly virus from a laboratory government ”.

Joint Chiefs President General Mark Milley confirmed that intelligence agencies were examining the origin at a briefing on Tuesday. “At the moment, it’s not conclusive, although the weight of evidence seems to indicate natural, but we don’t know for sure,” said Milley.

John Roberts of Fox News asked Trump an unusually specific question about laboratory leakage theory at a press conference on Wednesday, but declined to answer.

Understanding the mistakes made in China could mean a new era of openness and cooperation between Washington and Beijing. Indeed, State Department notes have shown that the U.S. government used to help fund Wuhan labs – the Trump administration has cut funding for a U.S. pandemic research program that has worked with Chinese laboratories in 2019.

In the face of a pandemic, it is understandable that many are looking for someone to blame. But a cascade of small mistakes is more likely than a big conspiracy. Learning from this may not be satisfying, but it could go much further to prevent it from happening again.


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