Is coronavirus a biological weapon?

As there is no known remedy for coronavirus, the focus needs to be on following the best practices


oronavirus disease (COVID-19) is an outbreak of respiratory illness caused by a novel (new) coronavirus. It is now an officially declared global pandemic. According to the latest reports, there are 125,048 confirmed cases of COVID-19.

By Thursday, 4,613 deaths had been reported. Only in the preceding 24 hours, 321 deaths had been reported. China has borne the brunt of the COVID-19. China has 80,981 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 3173 deaths. Outside of China, 44,067 cases had been confirmed, and 1,440 deaths reported.

Pakistan’s tally of the virus had reached 21, which included a secondary contact case. The secondary contact case means that the victim had no travel history, and he must have contracted the virus from one of the people who travelled to Pakistan from another country. Officially, COVID-19 has spread to 117 countries/territories/ areas of the world.

COVID-19 cuts through income barriers and has hit the unlikeliest of places and individuals. The wife of Canada’s prime minister has tested positive for the virus. The Italian chief of army staff has tested positive. An adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader has died of COVID-19. Among other notables, Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson, have tested positive for the virus. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has given a stark warning that up to 70 percent of the country’s population could contract the coronavirus. Stock markets around the world have since seen an unprecedented meltdown.

A lot of explanations have been advanced regarding the source of the coronavirus. Understandably, public-health officials want to pin down the virus’s source so that they can prevent new outbreaks. A lot of conspiracy theories are also making the rounds. The question essentially boils down to one point: was COVID-19 developed in a laboratory, and is it being used as a biological weapon to contain the formidable Chinese economic hegemony?

A related question is whether the virus was made in the laboratory purposefully, or did the virus made in the laboratory accidentally escape the laboratory. The lab-escape theory is so far the more widely accepted conspiracy theory. It had been circulating on social media for weeks, and gained considerable visibility following a New York Post article in late February.

Steven Mosher, a social scientist, summarises why he believes COVID-19 may have been accidentally spread by China’s National Biosafety Laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where researchers have studied bat coronaviruses. Mosher says that the lab is less than 10 miles away from the seafood market where a clustre of COVID-19 cases was first discovered.

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Mosher believes that the said lab is located in the Institute of Virology in Wuhan, where the dangerous pathogens were purportedly kept and looked at as potential bioweapons. There were reports that in the 2003 SARS outbreak, the SARS-CoV virus escaped from virology labs in China. He says Chinese virologist and bioweapons expert Major General Chen Wei’s visit to the Wuhan Institute of Virology with military scientists in January was an exercise in damage control.

In the past, these viruses have spread through wild bats that infect another type of animal —an intermediate host — that then spreads it to humans. SARS-CoV, for example, was transmitted from bats to civets to humans, while camels were an intermediate host in MERS, according to Quanta.

But there is a lot of scholarly evidence to suggest that coronavirus was not manufactured in the laboratory. Even if the exact source of the disease is not known yet, the virus originally came from wildlife.

An analysis of SARS-CoV-2 by scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology suggests that the virus’s genome is 96 percent similar to a coronavirus found in bats. Transmission from an animal, with no lab experiment or genetic manipulation involved, fits best with what scientists know about how other coronaviruses have made the jump to humans.

In the past, these viruses have spread through wild bats that infect another type of animal—an intermediate host—that then spreads it to humans. SARS-CoV, for example, was transmitted from bats to civets to humans, while camels were an intermediate host in MERS, according to Quanta.

The civet version of SARS-CoV was 99.8 percent similar to the one found in humans—much more closely related than the bat and human varieties of SARS-CoV-2—so researchers believe the new coronavirus also infected another type of animal on its way from bats to humans. But they have not found a candidate so far, according to Nature.

However, some other scientists have narrowed down their focus on the potential suspect from which humans may have contracted the virus. One explanation is that virus may have originated with horseshoe bats in China and then spread to other animals, possibly, ant-eating pangolin which was subsequently eaten by people. The ability of the virus to move across animal hosts is a characteristic feature of coronaviruses, according to Paul McCray.

It is the genetic similarities between the coronavirus found in humans and that found in the pangolins, which make scientists suspect that humans may have got the virus from the pangolins. The researchers said they had found a coronavirus in smuggled pangolins that was a 99 percent genetic match to the virus circulating in people.

Does it mean that bat-pangolin-human is the authentic link? Unfortunately, this is not the case. Scientists claim that although the animal is still a contender, the mystery is far from solved. Dozens of people infected early in the current outbreak worked in a live-animal market in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Still, tests of coronavirus samples found at the market have yet to identify a source.

In addition to the claim that a naturally evolved virus escaped from a lab by mistake, some conspiracy theories have posited that coronavirus was genetically engineered. Researchers throughout the world, including in the US and China, have conducted research involving the creation of experimentally engineered hybrid coronaviruses.

But there is no evidence that coronavirus was genetically engineered, as claimed in a study on the genomic analysis of the new virus. Even if the new coronavirus does have some genetic differences to other known viruses due to mutations, there’s no evidence that this is the result of a human experiment. It is claimed that if the virus were engineered, scientists would expect to see additional genetic material in its genome, which actually is not the case. So, the difference between coronavirus and other known viruses may just be a coincidence, rather than the result of human activity.

In a nutshell, the odds are heavily in favor of the theory that coronavirus jumped from the animals to humans. The most compelling reason to believe that coronavirus is not human-made is that the recent coronavirus closely resembles two other viruses that triggered outbreaks in recent decades, SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV. All three viruses seem to have originated in bats.

In short, the characteristics of new coronavirus fall in line with the current understanding that coronaviruses make the jump from animals to people. As there is no known remedy for coronavirus, the focus needs to be on following the best practices.

The writer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics at COMSATS University Islamabad, Lahore Campus, and may be reached at [email protected]

Is coronavirus a biological weapon?