A common conspiracy theory (or worry) is that COVID-19 has been somehow human engineered as a bioweapon or the like.
The theory varies as to who did this (e.g., China, the US, someone else) and whether the release of the virus was accidental or intentional.
If it was accidental, that doesn’t make much sense. As we’ll see below, to create this virus and hide your tracks would be a huge undertaking–probably Nobel-prize level stuff. So it would be strange for people capable of engineering the virus as elegantly to be so clumsy as to then release it by accident into the wild.
If it was intentional, these are the most incompetent bioterrorists ever. (Which is again strange given the sophistication of what they’d have had to do with COVID-19.)
Theoretical reasons to doubt conspiracy
In the first place, human-to-human diseases make lousy bioweapons, because you can’t control them. There’s too much risk they’ll rebound and get your group. (The exception would be if you had a vaccine for them. But there is no COVID-19 vaccine, unless the bioterrorists have also concocted that. But that would be a huge undertaking as well.)
Better bioweapons are things like anthrax, which can spread to humans but you don’t usually get human-to-human spread.
In the second place, the deployment and pattern is all wrong for a bioweapon. If you want to attack China, don’t start in Wuhan province. You’d want a simultaneous explosion of cases everywhere. So, why not start in (to pick three examples): Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong all together?
If you’re targeting the world at large or the United States, again Wuhan province makes little sense. Just spread it in half-a-dozen airports around the world, and watch the chaos. (Say, Heathrow, Beijing, Tokyo, JFK, LA-X, and Charles de Gaulle.)
Third, it’s a fairly crappy virus for this. Death rates may be high in the peak as resources are overwhelmed, but the vast majority of people will do fine. So it will produce some chaos and some suffering, but nothing fundamentally destabilizing in the long-term.
So, those are all theoretical reasons. The best reason, however, comes from the fact that we’ve sequenced the virus. We know its entire RNA code.
If someone had engineered the virus, it would leave tell-tale signs by the techniques used to tweak the genome. As a recent article in Nature put it:
It is improbable that SARS-CoV-2 emerged through laboratory manipulation of a related SARS-CoV-like coronavirus. As noted above, the RBD of SARS-CoV-2 is optimized for binding to human ACE2 with an efficient solution different from those previously predicted.
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
So, the part that makes it bind to humans is a completely novel solution–no point in reinventing the wheel if you’re making a bioweapon. But, Mother Nature is smarter and more creative than you are. Evolution in action.
And, this doesn’t show any link to “any previously used virus backbone.” So it would have to be an utterly novel technique to create this. Way more work than it would need to be.
So where did it come from?
COVID-19 is almost certainly a zoonotic infection–that’s an infection that jumps the species barrier to us. Most of history’s huge pandemics have been that kind of infection. For example:
- influenza (birds and pigs)
- measles (probably from rinderpest, a cattle disease)
- TB (cattle)
- HIV (monkeys)
- smallpox (cattle)
- bubonic plague (fleas on brown rats)
These cause pandemics because no human has immunity when the jump is made.
Such infections usually weaken (attenuate) over time as there is selection for strains that are less severe.
(It is easier to spread a disease that makes you mildly or not at all sick for an extended period while you spread it. Disease strains that kill fast and hard tend to be selected against because they aren’t able to spread as well. This is, for example, Ebola’s one saving grace–you get really sick really fast, and so you don’t have time to spread it. Heaven help us if we ever get an Ebola strain with a latency period of weeks to months before symptoms.
Even in recent memory, we’ve seen this. HIV used to be far more deadly early on in the 1980s than it is now. That’s because it has attenuated via this kind of selection. Even if we had no HIV medications, people would still live longer before getting sick and dying.)
Pandemics are scary. And it is perhaps more scary that they can simply arise out of no where, with no one causing them or engineering them. But that’s been the pattern throughout human history. If anything, we’ve enjoyed a “holiday from history” on that front.
COVID-19 should remind us that the planet is interconnected; health problems in one area become health problems everywhere.
Dishonest or corrupt governments (I’m looking at you, Communist Party of China) pose a risk to their own citizens and everyone else.
And, one must be prepared for such things before they start. Hopefully, we’ll learn some of those lessons. But, like generals, politicians always seem to prep for the last war. And, in the west they have great difficulty looking beyond a horizon of one election (so 2-5 years in North America). That’s a lousy timeframe for medical planning in general, and pandemics in particular.
And honestly, that worries me far more than COVID-19.