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WUHAN: China debunks theories of Corona virus
The conspiracy theories about the origins of the coronavirus, debunked, following the rumor the coronavirus started in a Chinese lab. And a scientific consensus it didn’t.
Workers inside the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China, in 2017. Conspiracy theorists have conjectured the lab is the origin of the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak; scientific evidence shows it’s not. AFP via Getty Images
The signs that the small, scattered coronavirus outbreak in the United States could spiral into a larger-scale problem are growing. A new analysis, first reported by STAT, found there are likely now 500 to 600 (mostly undetected) cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in Washington state alone. “January 1 in Wuhan was March 1 in Seattle,” computational biologist Trevor Bedford, who did the analysis, told STAT, referring to the Chinese city where the virus emerged and began rapidly infecting humans.
This could be a make-or-break moment where US cases remain relatively low and dispersed or explode in the coming weeks as they did in Wuhan in January.
The decisions federal and local public health officials make this week — to test more people with symptoms, inform the public about the risk, isolate the sick, and institute other measures — will be crucial. So will the speed at which they execute them.
Meanwhile, on Fox News and social media, a dangerous conspiracy theory about the origin of the health crisis won’t die.
There are two main versions of the rumor, and they have one common thread: that the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, originated in a level 4 (the highest biosafety level) research laboratory in Wuhan.
In one version of the rumor, the virus was engineered in the lab by humans as a bioweapon. In another version, the virus was being studied in the lab (after being isolated from animals) and then “escaped” or “leaked” because of weak safety protocol.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology is a real place, and the exact origin of the novel coronavirus is still a mystery, with researchers racing since the outbreak began to figure it out. But already, virologists who’ve parsed the genome and infectious disease experts who study coronaviruses say they have enough evidence the virus is brand new and came from nature. A large group of them, citing genome analyses from multiple countries, recently affirmed in The Lancet that the virus originated in wildlife.
The emergence of the virus in the same city as China’s only level 4 biosafety lab, it turns out, is pure coincidence.
Conspiratorial claims that the Wuhan lab are circulating on cable news and social media
Before we get to debunking, let’s note who is spreading rumors about the origins of the virus.
First, several prominent US conservative pundits and politicians — known to spew nonsense (and bash China) regularly — have been politicizing the bioweapon rumor for weeks.
“It probably is a ChiCom laboratory experiment that is in the process of being weaponized,” right-wing radio host and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Rush Limbaugh said of the virus on February 24. “All superpower nations weaponize bioweapons.”
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) has repeatedly suggested before Congress and on Fox News that the virus could have come from the lab.
On Monday, former White House strategist Steve Bannon went on Fox News to defend Cotton and imply that the Chinese Communist Party was still hiding something about the origin of Covid-19. “The mainstream media and far-left [are] saying, ‘Oh, he’s a conspiracy theorist,”’ Bannon said. ”All he’s saying: It’s incumbent upon the Chinese Communist Party and President Xi [Jinping] to come out and give all information … this is all Cotton’s saying.”
In the New York Post, Steven Mosher, a regular critic of China’s population control measures, has stoked the leakage rumor, using an array of detailed clues that Chinese labs’ handling of deadly pathogens can’t be trusted.
Similar rumors have also been running rampant in online forums in China. The South China Morning Post on February 20 debunked yet another news of the virus escaping from the lab in China:
More rumors swirled online over the weekend, this time that [Wuhan Institute of Virology] researcher Chen Quanjiao had reported the head of the institute, Wang Yanyi, claiming she had “sold experimental animals” to the live animal and seafood market and “leaked the virus” from the lab.
But Chen denied the claim, saying she was angry that her name had been used to fabricate information. “The recent rumors about the institute have affected the researchers as they try to tackle key problems,” Chen said in a statement.
The scientific evidence disproving these rumors matters because the conspiracy theory could persist and undermine trust in public health authorities at this critical moment. As the Washington Post reported Sunday, the rumor that the virus came from a Chinese lab is one reason residents of one Alabama county are currently unnerved and distrustful of the response to Covid-19 in their state.
“Conspiracy theories about humanmade viruses are not new. We saw this with HIV — the rumor that the US made it and introduced it into Africa. But they are harmful kinds of things to get spread around,” Gerald Keusch, a professor of medicine and international health and associate director of Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, told Vox.
So let’s walk through what we know about the virus, and why it’s time to put the lab rumor to rest.
The virus originated in bats and then jumped to humans, perhaps through other animals
Soon after the Chinese government acknowledged there was an outbreak of a mysterious new virus in late December in Wuhan, scientists raced to sequence its genome. By mid-January, they had it and shared it with the World Health Organization.
Soon after that, scientists saw that the virus closely resembled viruses that circulate in bats. “If you look at the genetic sequence of the virus, it’s closely related to a bat virus, about 96 percent the same,” Jim LeDuc, head of the Galveston National Laboratory, a level 4 biosafety lab in Texas, told Vox. “There’s been talk about a pangolin intermediate host; that’s probably not true.”
Chinese officials also reported that several of the first clusters of cases had ties to a live animal market where both seafood and other wildlife were sold as food. (The market has since been closed.) The market soon became the leading hypothesis for how the virus leaped humans, where it’s been able to spread efficiently ever since.
The genetic evidence and epidemiological information, according to three esteemed infectious disease researchers writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, “implicates a bat-origin virus infecting unidentified animal species sold in China’s live-animal markets.”
According to a genome analysis by Tanja Stadler from the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering at ETH Zurich in Basel, the virus first began transmitting in humans in China as early as the first half of November 2019.
“The widespread hypothesis that the first person was infected at an animal market in November is still plausible,” Stadler said in a statement. “Our data effectively rule out the scenario that the virus circulated in humans for a long time before that.”
LeDuc agrees with the hypothesis that the animal market played a role in the virus jumping to humans. “The linkage back to the market is pretty realistic and consistent with what we saw with SARS,” said LeDuc. “It’s an entirely plausible and logical explanation: The virus exists in nature and, jumping hosts, finds that it like humans just fine, thank you.“
Unfortunately, there’s a long history of these “spillover” events, where an emerging disease jumps from wildlife to humans, turning into a pandemic. And scientists say we should expect them with more travel, trade, connectivity, urbanization, climate change, and ecological destruction if we don’t stop the drivers.
What researchers have to figure out now is how exactly the coronavirus jumped to humans: perhaps through a human eating an infected animal or humans being exposed to contaminated feces or urine. “All we know [is] its likely distant source was bats, but we don’t know who was between bats and people,” said Vincent Racaniello, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia and host of the This Week in Virology podcast. “It could be a direct infection [between bats and humans] as well.”
A preliminary scientific paper shows this is a genuinely new virus, and there’s no way humans could have engineered it
In a recent podcast episode, Racaniello discussed with two other researchers a fascinating preprint paper (that’s currently under peer review, according to the authors) about the virus origin. The key finding: that SARS-CoV-2 is “not a laboratory construct nor a purposefully manipulated virus.”
The paper, which was uploaded onto Virological.org in February, is written by several leading microbiologists who carefully examined the SARS-CoV-2 genome. Specifically, they found the unusual biochemical features of the virus could only have come about two ways after the virus jumped from animal to humans, or what are called zoonotic transfer. The methods, they write, are: “1) natural selection in a non-human animal host before the zoonotic transfer, and 2) natural selection in humans following the zoonotic transfer.”
In other words, nature came up with these weird characteristics in the genome, either in an intermediary animal between bats and people or in humans after the virus infected one. As Racaniello put it on his podcast: “Humans could never have dreamed this up.”
What’s more, he noted, no known lab anywhere in the world was working on a coronavirus like this one, and its closest relative is a bat virus found in a cave in 2013 in Yunnan, China, 1,000 miles from Wuhan.“Presumably, there’s a common ancestor, most likely from a bat or an intermediary animal that was contaminated by that bat,” Racaniello says.