Coronavirus is everywhere we look. Empty high streets, masked faces, long supermarket lines, paranoid street-crossing, the plane-less skies. It is in our newspapers, on our TV shows, plastered across social media, and it hangs over our leaders’ press conferences like a dark cloud. There is no escaping it. It has become the defining element in all our lives. Given its omnipresence, it is perhaps little wonder that there has been much speculation as to its origins. And with that speculation have come various explanations – some more likely than others.
The Chinese Lab Theory
One idea that gathered a surprising amount of serious attention online was the theory that the virus originated in a Chinese laboratory in Wuhan. This theory has two forms, but they have a few things in common. First and foremost, they both focus on the Wuhan Institute of Virology – a research institute on virology found in Wuhan – which is where they claim the outbreak began.
Initially, various people (particularly in the US) theorised that the virus was a bio-weapon that had been engineered at this research institute. Such claims were prominently voiced by US conservative politicians and pundits, and were given a prominent stage during one of Donald Trump’s press conferences. These claims were often coloured by the US-China rivalry. Ironically, in March the Ayatollah of Iran similarly accused the US of having engineered the virus as a bioweapon for use against Iran.
These bioweapon claims mirror those made during the AIDS epidemic in Africa, when the US was accused of having created HIV as a bioweapon to eradicate African people. Back then, during the Cold War, this theory was promoted by the KGB through a propaganda campaign called “Operation INFEKTION.” As such, recent individuals have joined the long list of people seeking to politically hijack a pandemic.
Since then, the theory has been adapted. Now, instead of being decried as a bioweapon, the virus is said to have escaped from the research institute where it was being experimented with due to lax security measures. Naturally the Chinese government was accused of having covered this up, which accounts for the lack of evidence. To be fair, it is notable that the Wuhan Institute of Virology is the only level-4 biosafety (the highest level) in China. The institute is also not far from the exotic market where the first cases were detected, and is known to have been studying coronaviruses related to the SARS outbreak in 2002-4. What is more, China’s lack of transparency early on during the outbreak does not exactly make people willing to trust dismissive officials.
There is also ample precedent for laboratories being careless: in 2014, vials of smallpox were found in a cardboard box in a Washington laboratory that had “forgotten” about them, and in 2015 the US military accidentally shipped live anthrax to nine laboratories across the country.
The problem with these theories is that they are based on coincidence rather than evidence. And it is true, it does seem coincidental that there happened to be a high-security research institute in Wuhan that was studying coronaviruses. But a coincidence is likely all that it is.
Many scientists now agree that the virus is not a bioweapon, but had a natural origin. The issue is, because there is still much unknown about its origins, there is no way yet of definitively disproving the theory that it escaped from a laboratory.
Where things stand
The most widely accepted theory about the origins of the virus is that it originated in bats and jumped to humans. This was first proposed after its genome was shared with the World Health Organisation and scientists discovered many similarities with viruses that circulate in bats. The jump from bat to human most likely occurred in a live animal market where seafood and other wildlife were sold.
There is the possibility of it first infecting another species such as a pangolin, which are highly sought after in China, before infecting the first humans, but there is little consensus on how exactly it made the jump to people. In fact, there is still much that scientists across the world disagree about regarding the virus’s origins.
And this is where diverse theories and speculations begin. The nature of scientific investigation means that it takes time to say anything with surety. But the demand for explanation of how this global pandemic started is huge, and understandably so. As a result, various explanations based on loose evidence at best take hold.
The fact is, no one really knows where the virus came from. The most likely explanation we have so far is that it originated in a market in Wuhan. But even that is not certain. It is an uncomfortable fact that we will probably not have a satisfying answer until much later, perhaps only after a treatment has been developed. Even today, no one knows for sure where the Spanish Flu that ravaged the world in the early 20th Century came from. There are various hypotheses, but none have been – and none probably ever will be – proven beyond doubt.
At the World Health Assembly a proposal for an investigation into the origins is set to be discussed. Hopefully, this will shed some light on the issue and the world will be able to prevent another such pandemic or at least take precautions to make such an outbreak less likely.
Until such an investigation has been completed, we will all have to make peace with the fact that we just do not know. That is not to say we should blindly accept as indisputable facts what our governments or various news outlets are telling us. We should ask critical questions and do our best to track down the basis for any claims made. But we should all refrain from speculating wildly about where it came from. And for that, we may have to look beyond world leaders.