The COVID-19 outbreak has seen a barrage of misinformation around the virus, the disease and potential cures and vaccines. But a particularly tenacious rumour has consistently found its way back in the cyberspace, despite being repeatedly debunked by fact checkers.
The rumour states that the current pandemic is caused by a bioweapon, made by humans in a lab. It has appeared in various iterations, in the form of different stories - sometimes entirely fictional, sometimes inspired by real life events.
This article is meant to bring together such stories, look at its origins, and explain why existing scientific evidence rubbishes the bioweapon theory.
Conspiracy Theories, Rumours And False Predictions
1. The Reddit Thread That Got Out Of Hand
Around March, a story appeared on social media, claiming that the recent outbreak of the novel Coronavirus was concocted to hide the spread of a bioweapon, that was accidentally released near Wuhan's wild animal market.
The story was seemingly written from the point of view of a high-ranking Chinese intelligence officer, who explains how the virus was initially developed to suppress the Hong Kong protests, and was later leaked at the market when a "traitor" tried to sell it to the United States.
Our investigation revealed that this story has no link to reality, and that it originated from a subreddit called r/NoSleep - a Reddit forum where people share fictional horror stories often based on real events. A user, named as Wuhanvirusthrowaway published the fictional story in the Reddit forum.
Despite being debunked, Marathi daily Lokmat published this work of fiction on its English web edition as a real story.
2. The Netflix Show That Predicted The Outbreak
A prediction theory came up, when netizens started sharing a segment from Netflix Korean drama My Secret Terrius, where the characters discussed the outbreak of a new human-made coronavirus bioweapon.
Stop what you're doing right now.... Go on Netflix... type in My Secret Terrius, go to Season 1, episode 10 and skip to 53 minutes. it's kind of suspicious.— Aditya Singh (@aditya_xing) March 27, 2020
This series came in 2018 and the first reported case of Coronavirus was in Nov 2019.#ChineseVirusCorona #ChineseWuhanVirus pic.twitter.com/KEpx8Au6fU
However, the prediction theory did not hold our scrutiny. We found that the properties of the virus discussed in the episode do not match those of SARS-CoV-2 - the causative agent behind COVID-19.
3. The Harvard Professor Who Did Not Invent Coronavirus
Social media saw a revival of the bioweapon theory, when a Harvard chemist Dr. Charles Lieber, was arrested by the United States Department of Justice for dubious links with the Chinese government. Facebook posts and WhatsApp forwards started claiming that Lieber was arrested for manufacturing the new coronavirus for China.
Dr. Lieber was indeed arrested for allegedly making a false statement about his involvement with the Chinese government, and for alleged non-disclosure of Chinese funding. However, the viral claims are misleading - a quick look through the press statement by the US Department of Justice reveals that the entire fiasco has nothing to do with the ongoing pandemic.
Lawsuits, Chinese Rumours And Affinity For Conspiracies
The theories around COVID-19 being caused by a bioweapon is not limited to social media. A $20 trillion lawsuit was filed against China in March in a Texas District Court for the "creation and release, accidental or otherwise" of the new virus causing COVID-19.
"COVID-19 was designed by China to be a very 'effective' and catastrophic biological warfare weapon to kill mass populations… there are many indications besides the nature of the disease demonstrating that the virus was engineered in the Chinese military's laboratory or laboratories," the plaintiffs argued in the lawsuit.
Meanwhile, the New York Times reported that the Chinese government is actively pushing the theory that the virus was released by the US Army during a visit to Wuhan last October.
Each of these instances have given strong credence to the bioweapon theory, making it likely for such rumours to appear again.
Furthermore, certain psychological traits play a big role in drawing people to such conspiracies. Karen M. Douglas, a social psychologist who studies belief in conspiracies at the University of Kent in Britain, told the New York Times that such conspiracies "satisfy certain psychological motives".
"If you believe in conspiracy theories, then you have power through knowledge that other people don't have," she said.
No Evidence, Says Science
Recent studies on SARS-CoV-2 provides us enough evidence to debunk the claim that the virus was human-made. Peer-reviewed articles (Zhou et. al (2020); Andersen et. al (2020)) state two possible theories for the origins of the virus:
- The virus went through natural selection in an animal (currently the progenitor host is theorised to be a bat or a pangolin), before going through zoonotic transfer (transfer of pathogens between animals and humans), and jumping into a human host.
- The virus jumped into a human host from an animal, while going through re-assortment of its genetic make-up that could lead it to acquiring the properties to start a pandemic.
"The high-affinity binding of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein to human ACE2 is most likely the result of natural selection on a human or human-like ACE2 that permits another optimal binding solution to arise. This is strong evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is not the product of purposeful manipulation," the paper stated.
"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," it added.