Diseases bring out the worst in us, inspiring racist attacks, xenophobic public policy, and isolationism. It’s happening right now in the world of coronavirus disease 2019, formally called COVID-19. But diseases also bring out the worst of us, grifters and promoters who thrive on the spread of conspiracies and the panic they cause. There’s one particularly pernicious conspiracy I want to address, one that also cropped up during the 2013–16 Ebola virus disease outbreak originating in Western Africa.
I’m talking about bioweapons. Whenever a disease emerges, claims that it has spread too quickly to be natural soon follow.
Conspiracy theories infect us faster than the virus itself, it seems. This time, the basic idea behind all of them is that the origins of COVID-19 in Wuhan, home to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, is suspicious. From there, some claim that it escaped the lab accidentally after being used in a regular, if risky, experiment, or a bioweapons program. Others suggest it was released intentionally, though it gets convoluted when you try to determine who, exactly, was being attacked: As the podcast Knowledge Fight has documented, Alex Jones has said that COVID-19 is both a false-flag style attack by the Chinese government against its own people and a “ChiCom” (that is, Chinese communist) plot to attack the West, a conspiracy repeated by Rush Limbaugh.
Responsible outlets have covered the conspiracy theories, attempting to debunk them. But even some experts don’t seem immune here. One rejected the idea of the virus being a biological weapon and praised the Wuhan Institute of Virology as a “world-class research institution that does world-class research” to the Washington Post at the end of January. Less than a month later, he was tweeting sympathetically about a New York Post opinion piece claiming the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the virus that causes COVID-19, had escaped from the same lab.
These kinds of conspiracy theories thrive on our fear of the uncertain, on our tendency to demand absolute proof that something is not the case—and it’s difficult to prove something 100 percent false. Even scientists can get sucked into this: During the Ebola outbreak, a colleague and I tried to address concerns about ebolavirus “becoming airborne,” a theory based on the argument that because no one could prove it absolutely couldn’t happen, we should act as if it was happening.
In the case of COVID-19, there are a number of clear explanations for its sudden emergence. But it does not matter how effectively we counter conspiracies claiming evidence that the virus shows signs of being engineered. That’s because the rumors of a lab escape or a bioweapon stem from historical amnesia, a caricatured villain, and good old-fashioned racism.
The first big point folks make is that the Wuhan Institute for Virology is in the same city as the market visited by some of the first patients with COVID-19. This is a conspiratorial version of “correlation equals causation.” The fact that two things are nearby—never mind that Wuhan has the same population as New York City, is just as busy, and the market and lab are almost 10 miles away from each other—is enough for some to start “just asking questions,” as conspiracy theorists so often do.
But just asking questions is lazy. There are other explanations for where in Wuhan the virus could have originated, the most obvious being bats. A number of species of bat can be found in Hubei province, home to Wuhan, and they absolutely carry coronaviruses. Those viruses often need an intermediate host, and animals that can serve that role are also found in and around the city, not just in markets. Like humans, animals go where food and shelter are. We’ve seen this elsewhere, and with other viruses, including the original SARS coronavirus (spread from bats to civets to humans), Hendra virus in Australia (bats to horses to humans—and less than six miles from a major university biology department!), and Nipah virus (bats to pigs to humans). So we’d do well to ask what the chances are that this particular virus originated in a lab as opposed to coming from animals, just like all the other outbreaks that have happened in the region.
These conspiracy theories also forget, or misunderstand, or mislead their audiences about how laboratory accidents typically happen. And they do: In the past few years there have been investigations into systemic problems with laboratories all over the world, including the U.S. and the United Kingdom. In August, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases was shut down, and it remains so as part of an ongoing review. Laboratory accidents in the United States, including the accidental shipping of H5N1 avian influenza to a U.S. Department of Agriculture lab and the exposure of approximately 75 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention workers to anthrax, led to a funding pause on certain kinds of “gain of function studies” that result in the creation of new “potential pandemic pathogens” with enhanced virulence and transmissibility.
All of this is alarming. But through this we’ve been able to better measure the chances of a laboratory accident leading to an outbreak. Colleagues of mine modeled the chance of a laboratory failure leading to a wide outbreak, and the long and the short of it is that the chances of such an accident leading to an infection are tiny, and the chances of that leading to a local outbreak and then a global outbreak are smaller and smaller again. History has also shown that laboratory accidents leading to outbreaks share common features: There were three laboratory accidents involving SARS in Asia immediately after the first outbreak of the disease, the final one causing the death of a patient. These outbreaks, however, all had straightforward ties to their labs of origins. COVID-19, on the other hand, has no such ties.
Following those releases, China updated its laboratory biosafety standards a number of times, most recently just last week. Inevitably, folks will point to the timing of these new biosafety guidelines—ignoring those the U.S. has produced in the past few years—in China as evidence that a lab accident causing this outbreak is plausible. What they fail to realize is that those new guidelines were in the works long before COVID-19 reared its head. The first draft was produced last October, according to the South China Morning Post, but the outbreak has provided the crisis that moves various government departments to act to bring the new regulations about. It’s a response that will be familiar to anyone that has worked with the government. Nothing gets policy moving like a crisis.
While safety issues continue to challenge China as well as other countries, the scandals of recent years in China have been good old-fashioned corruption. One scientist, for example, was found to have embezzled about $4.8 million in funds meant for transgenic animal research, distributing it to other companies that he was involved with. Another was found to be illegally selling off lab animals. But before you get too conspiratorial, these animals almost certainly weren’t sold to food markets or anything like that—they went to other labs. China is the world’s largest purveyor of laboratory animals, which can be expensive. If researchers are motivated to sell them at all, they stand to make more money selling them as lab animals, not as food.
This is where the caricatured villain comes in. Conspiracies need a bad guy smart enough to be dangerous but dumb enough not to be too threatening. China has a biosafety level 4 lab that foreign scientists call world-class and threatens the United States’ scientific dominance, but simultaneously it apparently has lousy standards and sells lab animals for food. In this telling, Chinese scientists are smart but also somehow stupid at the same time.
Driving these caricatured views, moreover, is an undercurrent of racism. The history of China includes a series of at times violent occupations by English, American, French, and Japanese forces. From this history arises the trope of China as the “sick man of Asia,” an unintentional collaboration between English diplomats and Chinese intellectuals, and made popular more than a century later by, of all people, Bruce Lee, as the South China Morning Post describes. This trope describes the government of China as weak and failing, but also the Chinese people themselves as physically frail. Recently revived by a columnist at the Wall Street Journal, to the anger of the Chinese government, the trope feeds an image of the Chinese as cunning but not intelligent. It’s an odious hang-up from our colonial past, and one we’d be well placed to abandon. It’s worth noting that part of that history includes the use of biological weapons against China by the Japanese—China is the most recent nation to have had bioweapons used against them, en masse, by a foreign power.
Let’s be clear: The government of China is not off the hook. Its response to COVID-19, and the quarantine of tens of millions of people, was an egregious and wasteful violation of human rights. Its current approaches to media and its arguable mistreatment of health care workers ought to be condemned. Like any major power, China has a litany of human rights violations it should answer for.
With so many actual bad deeds to choose from, we don’t need to make up a new conspiracy. If I had to guess, I’d say that the seeds of this conspiracy lie in the fact that we’re scared of COVID-19. It’s easier to say “this was an attack by China” than it is to admit that in the more than 15 years since SARS, we haven’t put enough work into global public health as we should have. And in the U.S., we’ve consistently defunded public health programs and failed to implement the labor laws and health care reform that would protect us from an outbreak like this one. As usual, it’s easier to create a bad guy than it is to admit that maybe we—the U.S., and the world—screwed the pooch when it comes to public health.