The theory that the novel coronavirus originated in a lab evolved from a conspiracy theory that was widely disbelieved to being expressed as a possibility in mainstream media and is now the subject of a US federal investigation.
The virus emerged from Wuhan at the end of January, and by early February it was a pervasive global pandemic. While scientists, researchers, and doctors seek to find cures and treatments, the question of just how and where it came to be are still unknown.
One hypothesis as to its origins has been denied as false since it was first uttered, the notion that in some form or other it originated in the Wuhan Virology Lab. The Lab was built in Wuhan in 2015, and it is one of the most advanced labs in China. It is China’s only biosafety level 4 super laboratory, and it is designed to research infectious diseases.
While initial reports were that the virus originated in the city’s wet market, spreading from animal to human, reports quickly surfaced to say that this was not the case. The idea that it spread from animal to human is pervasive, and is the collective understanding of scientists and researchers. Which animal—and where—are still in question. Bats, pangolins, or other exotic animals, could be the source of the contagion.
Concerns that the virus may have originated in a lab emerged at the end of January. The Daily Mail revealed on January 24 that US experts on biosafety had previously raised concerns about the lab. They pointed out that SARS leaked from a lab in Beijing in 2004. Then The Lancet published a paper that said the wet markets in Wuhan may not have been the source of the outbreak after all.
The Washington Times ran an article on January 26 noting that the lab is linked to the Chinese Defense Department, and that a State Department Report noted concern “with respect to Chinese military medical institutions’ toxin research and development because of the potential dual-use applications and their potential as a biological threat.”
On January 29, the Washington Post assembled all of the articles that were published by conservative leaning outlets about the possibility that the virus was lab born. They said that there was “little public evidence,” but that “the theory has spread widely on social media, to conspiracy theory websites, and in some international outlets.”
It was on February 5 that The Washington Times wrote about the “first, semi-official response” from the CCP. Global Times, a CCP affiliated outlet, cited “an in-depth report” from “Chinese experts who said that the coronavirus could not have been engineered in a laboratory.” They also quote Shi Zhengli, a research fellow at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, who wrote on her WeChat account that “The 2019 novel coronavirus is a punishment by nature to humans’ unsanitary lifestyle. I promise with my life that the virus has nothing to do with the lab.”
February 16 saw Arizona Republican Senator Tom Cotton speaking with anchor Maria Bartiromo. She asked him about the theory that the COVID-19 coronavirus was an intentionally made bioweapon. He said: “Here’s what we do know. This virus did not originate in the Wuhan animal market… Several of the original cases did not have any contact with that food market. The virus went into that food market before it came out of that food market. So we don’t know where it originated, but we do know that we have to get to the bottom of that. We also know that just a few miles away from that food market is China’s only biosafety level 4 super laboratory that researches human infectious diseases. We don’t have evidence that the disease originated there, but because of China’s duplicity and dishonesty from the beginning we need to at least ask the question to see what the evidence says and China right now is not giving any evidence on that question at all.”
Cotton said: “The Chinese government has consistently blocked American scientists, who are the very best in the world, from going to Wuhan, going to Hubei, trying to provide assistance to make sure this virus is contained to the greatest extent possible to discover its origins to shed light on what that may mean for successful testing and vaccines, but the Chinese Communist Party continues to refuse that offer of assistance from the United States.”
The Post Millennial reported on February 17 that the “coronavirus may have originated at a Wuhan lab.” It references a report from biologists Botao Xiao and Lei Xiao, that “explored the histories of the laboratories and noted that diseased animals were hosted within the WCDC, and previous incidents of infections had occurred.” That report has since been deleted.
China’s cover-ups dissent and disappearances of dissenters is legendary, and the use of those tactics in shutting down discourse on the origins of the virus have been nothing short of exhaustive.
The New York Times tried to tamp down the concern on February 17. They said that “Right-wing media outlets fan the anger. Beijing, with its heavy-handed censorship and stranglehold on information, unwittingly gives the conspiracy theories a boost.” Beijing had by this time begun rumours that the virus was part of the US plot to destabilize China's global influence.
The Lancet condemned the assertion that the virus may have been made in a lab, stating that it in fact originated in an animal and was transferred to humans. On February 19, scientists penned an open letter stating “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.”
While evidence of the leak from the virology lab was still not extant, The New York Post noted on February 22 that “the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology released a new directive titled: “Instructions on strengthening biosecurity management in microbiology labs that handle advanced viruses like the novel coronavirus” only a few days after an emergency meeting held by President Xi Jinping on February 14th.
The New England Journal of Medicine published an article stating that “Of course, scientists tell us that SARS-CoV-2 did not escape from a jar: RNA sequences closely resemble those of viruses that silently circulate in bats, and epidemiological information implicates a bat-origin virus infecting unidentified animal species sold in China’s live-animal markets.”
It is the “of course” that is so pervasive, the idea is that of course there is one perspective, and that all other perspectives are not worthy to be explored. But without any clear evidence of one thing or another, theories multiply.
By early March, the idea that perhaps the virus originated in a lab and was leaked unintentionally were picking up steam. Vox, Wall Street Journal, and others ran stories in opposition to the theory that the virus originated in a lab. While early theories posited that the virus was intentionally made, the new idea emerging was that the virus was discovered in the lab, where researchers were testing on animals, and that the contagion then accidentally leaked the confines of that lab.
Reports from Asia emerged by mid-March stating that there was every reason to believe the virus was discovered at the Wuhan Virology Lab and escaped the protective precautions of that lab. This stated that “a distinction must be made between "created virus" and "leaked virus.”
At issue specifically, in trying to determine the origin of the virus, are the properties that allow the virus to bind to human cells. While scientists tend to agree that the virus was not an intentional biochemical release, there is disagreement on its having been found within an animal test subject at a lab, and exiting that lab unintentionally, or emerged in nature and hopped to humans of its own opportunity.
On April 15, Fox News reports that the US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said “Even today, I see them withholding information and I think we need to do more to continue to press them to share,” Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told “America’s Newsroom" on Wednesday, referring to China. Esper added that he wouldn't speak to "intelligence reporting," but that "most people believe it began naturally—it was organic, if you will. I think in due course, once we get through the pandemic we're in right now, there'll be time to look back and really ascertain what happened and make sure we have a better understanding so we can prevent this in the future."
By April 16, US intelligence officials were investigating the source of the outbreak as potentially, unintentionally, lab based. Officials do not believe that it was a manufactured weapon, they do not believe that the virus was set upon the world on purpose. But they are looking into its origins, and the Chinese Communist Party’s cover up. While the idea that the virus was made in a lab has been thoroughly denied, the idea that it may have been discovered there is now under investigation.