Behind the theory: Was COVID-19 made in a lab?

Among the hundreds of theories about how COVID-19 started, one is gaining traction despite being dismissed over and over again. This is the theory that, somehow, COVID-19 was made in a Chinese lab. Sounds like a familiar conspiracy theory doesn’t it? Even The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently said it was “extremely unlikely” that COVID-19 leaked from a Wuhan lab. But some people are holding onto the fact that “extremely unlikely” isn’t exactly “impossible” and are still convinced that, whether on purpose or by accident, there is more to discover surrounding the lab story. So let’s look at the evidence and why people are holding on to the beliefs that they do.

The source of COVID-19 hasn’t yet been confirmed, which goes against our uniquely human desire to find out why things happen. Bats have taken the blame so far, and most researchers think it came from some animal, thus making it a zoonotic disease. They think this for a few reasons: firstly, approximately 60% of viruses in the past have come from animals which makes it likely that COVID did too. This was the case in swine flu and bird flu, to name just a few. Secondly, the genetic makeup of COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) was discovered soon after the outbreak began and scientists continue to track it, looking for mutations. The genome was found to be very similar to that of bat coronaviruses: in particular, RaTG13 was found by the Wuhan Institute of Virology to be 96% similar.

Several theories about the origins of the virus have since been disproved. At one point, claims that COVID-19 started in the Wuhan wet markets were called “likely” due to the close contact with humans and animals known to carry coronavirus. This has since been largely discounted. Researchers have found no traces of coronavirus in the animals at the wet market, meaning that the early outbreak there was likely to be a ‘super spreader’ event instead. 

The lab-leak theory

The speculation that COVID-19 came from a lab rests on two main theories: firstly that COVID-19 was made to be a bio-weapon, and second that it accidentally spread to a scientist who was moderating coronaviruses.

Mostly, the finger is being pointed at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, especially since concerns were raised in 2018 by the US State Department about infection safety at the institute. The Wuhan Institute of Virology is China’s first biosafety level 4 laboratory, meaning it has the highest level of biocontainment (air filtering, waste treatment, etc.) to prevent accidental leak of pathogens. It is known that research was being conducted at the institute surrounding coronaviruses and this research was even being funded by the European Commission. 

The prospect of a serious pathogenic lab leak was discussed way before the outbreak of COVID-19 and transmission to researchers has occurred in the past. For example, the last known person to die from Smallpox was Janet Parker in 1978 who had been exposed to the virus grown in a research lab. Theorists have pieced together this information to suggest that a coronavirus emerging from the same area, as such a high level virology institute, is more than just a coincidence. 

But is there really any evidence directly linking the virus and the lab? Not really. It remains just speculation at the moment.

Part of the problem is that China is by no means transparent. At the start of the pandemic, the country attempted to keep the spread of coronavirus largely covered up which created a great sense of mistrust among the international community. Just a month ago, a team from WHO sent to China to investigate the origins of COVID-19 were first blocked from entering the country due to “visa issues.” Another journalistic BBC team reporting on the bat experiments being conducted in South China were followed by authorities and met with roadblocks. There have even been reports of coronavirus samples being wrongly destroyed. China is extremely secretive and conscious about its internal reputation with notorious propaganda, and this mix of science and politics means that efforts to prove or disprove the Wuhan lab leak story have an extra layer of difficulty.  

The conclusion

There isn’t any real evidence to suggest that COVID-19 came from a lab and all investigative experts from WHO were reported to have unanimously dismissed the theory – after visiting China. But the problem is, there also isn’t conclusive evidence confirming where it did come from. It’s imperative that we find out the origins of the virus in order to prevent further pandemics from happening in the future. However, with China being particularly unhelpful, the vigorous determination of the country’s political powers to control their reputation is backfiring, making people think that they have something to hide. 

Featured image by Héctor Retamal/AFP/Getty via the Guardian