Why coronavirus conspiracy theory of Covid-19 being a bio-weapon is wrong


MARCH 30, 2020

A lawsuit has been filed in the US against China seeking compensation more than the gross domestic product (GDP) of China. The petitioners seek $20 trillion from China accusing it of releasing a bio-weapon in the form of novel coronavirus or SARS-CoV-2. The US is now the worst affected countries by novel coronavirus pandemic.

The theory that Covid-19, the disease caused by novel coronavirus, is a conspiracy has been gaining in currency for over two months. It emerged on social media and some prominent persons fuelled it by giving their voice. Influential US Senator Tom Cotton in TV interview is one of them.

What helped this conspiracy theory spread fast were reports of cover-up by China when the disease was still in the early phases of spread. Finally when China admitted that it was an outbreak, it pin-pointed the origin of novel coronavirus infection to a seafood and animal meat market in Wuhan. This market is only about 25-30 km from China’s premier virus research centre, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, of the parties named in the lawsuit filed in the US.

The Wuhan institute was already the suspect for the conspiracy theorists. It was already in discussion that novel coronavirus was a bio-weapon that escaped or allowed to escape the lab. This gained further currency from reports of a Chinese scientist couple being expelled from a centre of virology in Canada, which denied the link between its disciplinary action and spread of Covid-19.

Two more developments fuelled the imagination of the masses as well as the classes. Discovery of a 1981 work of fiction, the Eyes of Darkness, whose description of a viral outbreak extraordinarily matches with the Covid-19 pandemic, was the first. The writer named the virus as Wuhan-400 calling the Chinese city its epicentre. Almost two decades later, Wuhan in fact played that role.

The second is more intriguing. An American singer, Keri Hilson linked the novel coronavirus outbreak with the China’s new technology headway with 5G network of telecommunication. China launched its 5G technology in November 2019. The novel coronavirus outbreak was registered in December 2019. Now, a study has found that the first novel coronavirus patient could have got the infection in November itself.

But now scientific studies debunk this theory, by addressing the question directly and also by exploring the real makeup of the novel coronavirus. In a paper, published in the Nature, the researchers analysed the genome of the SARS-CoV-2 and compared it with its cousins from the coronavirus family.

The scientists said SARS-CoV-2 is the seventh coronavirus known to infect humans. These are, HKU1, NL63, OC43, 229E, SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2. Of these the first four are as good as harmless and cause only mild symptoms in humans. The last three SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2 have wreaked havoc with the first two having caused epidemic in the last 18 years. SARS-CoV-2 is the current nemesis to humankind.

The researchers have declared, “Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.”

It was found during analysis of the behaviour of novel coronavirus among humans that SARS-CoV-2 may bind a human protein called ACE-2 with high affinity. But the computational analyses predict that the interaction is not ideal.

This means the high-affinity binding of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein to human ACE-2 is most likely the result of natural selection on a human or human-like ACE-2 that permits another optimal binding solution to arise. The scientists said this is strong evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is not the product of purposeful manipulation.

“Furthermore, if genetic manipulation had been performed, one of the several reverse-genetic systems available for betacoronaviruses would probably have been used. However, the genetic data irrefutably show that SARS-CoV-2 is not derived from any previously used virus backbone,” the paper says.

Refuting this bio-weapon theory is significant as the unscientific speculation has fuelled racism in approach to blame China and people with particular physical features for Covid-19 pandemic. Such reports have come not only from the US but also from India. A woman from the Northeast was racially harassed in Delhi. An NGO last week cited 22 similar incidents of attacks on people from the Northeast linking them with novel coronavirus outbreak.

At diplomatic level, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi in his telephonic conversation with Minister of External Affairs S Jaishankar sought India’s help against attempts to brand novel coronavirus China Virus. US President Donald Trump had branded it as Chinese virus as his administration blamed China for Covid-19 becoming a pandemic and potentially the biggest economic crisis of all times.

Follow the government’s latest travel advice if you are planning a trip outside India or travelling back to India from affected areas. You can also read World Health Organization’s advice on basic protective measures against the virus. WHO has also busted some myths surrounding coronavirus. The Ministry of Health’s special helpline is available at +91-11-23978046 and ncov2019@gmail.com.