Viruses can be dangerous. Viruses cause numerous human diseases including smallpox, rabies, influenza, yellow fever, Ebola, dengue, Zika, mumps, chickenpox, shingles and HIV/AIDS. The virus which causes the COVID-19 disease is called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2, which is abbreviated as SARS-CoV-2. The number two refers to the fact that SARS-CoV-2 is the second SARS type coronavirus to cause an epidemic. The earlier SARS epidemic occurred during 2002-2004 largely in south China.
Pandemics effecting the entire world should engender a supportive and cooperative response from everyone but, regrettably, this does not always happen. The fear and confusion resulting from pandemics sometimes produce racism, xenophobia and dangerous interpretive narratives. Some political elites embrace a bellicose nationalism, particularly when they have been incompetent about coping with the pandemic.
The dangerous (and erroneous) narrative that accompanies the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States makes China responsible for the disease. The fact that the SARS-CoV-2 virus originated in China is uncontroversial. But the “China is responsible” story makes two additional claims. Claim one: The SARS-CoV-2 virus was engineered by Chinese scientists as a biological weapon. Claim two: The SARS-Cov-2 virus escaped from a Chinese biological laboratory located in the city of Wuhan.
A mountain of evidence refutes claim one. No responsible microbiologist, even scientists unfriendly to China, considers this allegation true. The biochemical structure of SARS-CoV-2 shows that the virus jumped from animals to humans and was not created in a laboratory. That structure is so complex and unusual that it could not have been conceived or constructed by human scientists using existing research methods. Hence the virus results from a process of natural selection rather than laboratory fabrication. Moreover, SARS-CoV-2 would be a poor biological weapon. Its death rate (called CFR or Case Fatality Rate) is not more than 3%, with greater lethality among old people rather than prime-age soldiers. Other available viruses, such as Ebola or West African Lassa, with CFRs in the 30-50% range would make far better bioweapons. Prior to COVID-19, according to knowledgeable American microbiologists, no virology laboratory around the world was working on a corona virus anything like SARS-CoV-2.
The evidence against claim two is also very strong. Numbers alone make it very likely that SARS-CoV-2 did not escape from a Chinese laboratory, but was transferred directly from animals (probably bats) to humans. It is well known that bats harbor many coronaviruses. In fact, the genotype of SARS-CoV-2 is 96% similar to that of certain coronaviruses found in horseshoe bats located throughout Southeast Asia. According to research-based estimates, each year between 1 to 7 million people of Southeast Asia are infected with bat viruses. By contrast, less than a dozen research workers in the Wuhan Institute of Virology experiment with coronaviruses. Thus relative frequencies make it far more probable that SARS-CoV-2 reached humans via bats (or an intermediate animal host) rather than by escaping the Institute of Virology laboratory.
Two other considerations diminish the likelihood of the laboratory escape scenario. The Institute of Virology Laboratory enjoys the highest biological safety level in all of China (BSL-4). It has world-class facilities, on par with the best virology labs anywhere in the world. The professional staff of the Wuhan Virology Lab is universally acknowledged to be exceedingly competent, dedicated and meticulous. Viral escape from such a premium research facility with such excellent staff seems most improbable. Furthermore, to reiterate the point made above, American microbiologists who have worked at the Wuhan lab say that none of its prior coronavirus collection resembles SARS-CoV-2.
To express their support of Chinese colleagues, as well as their opposition to dangerous xenophobic narratives about the COVID-19 pandemic, 27 public health scientists published a joint letter in The Lancet medical journal. The letter includes the following statement:
“The rapid, open, and transparent sharing of data on this outbreak is now being threatened by rumors and misinformation around its origins. We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin. Scientists from multiple countries have published and analyzed genomes of the causative agent, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), and they overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife, as have so many other emerging pathogens.”