Did the COVID-19 Pandemic Begin in a Lab?

Is it likely that COVID-19 was bio-engineered into existence? Who would be the most likely designer? And why is this theory scientifically implausible?

Photo: BBC, retrieved.

Wuhan, the epicenter of the pandemic, happens to house one of China’s most advanced biological labs. The Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) became the country’s first biosafety level 4 lab back in 2015, that’s the highest security level there is, required to work with highly pathogenic organisms like Ebola or the very Venezuelan Guanarito virus. 

The first person to suggest the lab could have played a role in the pandemic was American youtuber Matthew Tye, in a video uploaded on April 1st. With over 2 million views, Tye claimed one of the WIV researchers, Huang Yanling, was thought to be COVID-19’s patient zero. The idea made such a fuss on the internet that the lab published an official disclaimer, indicating Yanling had left the institution in 2015. 

WIV does have an extensive research line in bat coronaviruses and, curiously, happened to post two job offers in November and December 2019 looking for researchers interested in the area. Other circumstantial evidence has been presented in conservative American outlets, such as National Review.

To make things more interesting, an article published last Monday in the Washington Post reveals that U.S. researchers who visited the WIV in 2018 reported the lack of properly trained technicians and researchers to work in high-containment facilities. American researchers noticed the lab had discovered several SARS-like coronaviruses that could potentially infect humans and recommended U.S. officers to keep an eye on the facility and help it address some of its safety issues.

The scenario where a researcher accidentally gets in contact with the virus while working with bats, then carries it to Wuhan’s seafood market, from where it spreads, is actually a pretty credible one.

None of this means SARS-Cov-2 is a lab product. There’s extensive evidence indicating the virus wasn’t bioengineered, but rather jumped naturally from animals to humans. However, the scenario where a researcher accidentally gets in contact with the virus while working with bats, then carries it to Wuhan’s seafood market, from where it spreads, is actually a pretty credible one.

The WIV and the main scientific officer in charge of bat coronavirus research, Shi Zhengli, have repeatedly denied the outbreak originated in their lab, and Zhengli’s team was actually the first to report that the 2019-nCoV, as the new coronavirus was known back in February, had probably originated in bats.

It’s all circumstantial, but it does match earlier reports suggesting the virus jumped to humans in early November, before the outbreak at the seafood market had been identified. The information also comes at a time when mounting evidence indicates the Chinese government has systematically withheld information regarding the pandemic, so if there was the slightest suspicion the outbreak originated in a virology lab, it’s safe to assume the Chinese government would try quite hard to hide it.

There are a couple problems with the lab origin theory though. As explained in a previous post, current evidence strongly suggests the virus didn’t jump directly from bats to humans, but rather mutated in a third, still unidentified animal. Pangolins are a likely candidate, but there’s not enough evidence to incriminate them yet. Furthermore, even though officers in the Trump administration think the outbreak could have originated in a Chinese lab, American intelligence agencies have failed to confirm this. General Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff at the Pentagon, has publicly stated that intelligence reports point towards a “natural” origin.

So, although it sure seems like there are a lot of weird coincidences around the WIV, there’s simply not enough hard evidence indicating the outbreak started there. In fact, we probably won’t know, ever, how the virus first infected humans. 

The issue has certainly been controversial in Twitterzuela, with radical opposition accounts echoing (and misinterpreting) Tye’s YouTube “documentary” and chavistas saying General Miley’s declarations respond to Chinese threats.

Believe whatever floats your boat, but remember: staying rational is now more important than ever.