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This idea was discussed in the Washington Times (no longer available at the original site: on archive.org.

The article discusses whether SARS-CoV-2 (the virus which causes COVID-19) could have been made in a Chinese bio-weapon lab:

Dany Shoham, a former Israeli military intelligence officer who has studied Chinese biological warfare, said the institute is linked to Beijing’s covert bio-weapons program.

...

Coronaviruses [particularly SARS] have been studied in the institute and are probably held therein,” Mr. Shoham said. “SARS is included within the Chinese BW program, at large, and is dealt with in several pertinent facilities.”

It is not known whether the institute’s coronaviruses are specifically included in China’s biological weapons program but it is possible, he said.

Asked whether the new coronavirus may have leaked, Mr. Shoham said: “In principle, outward virus infiltration might take place either as leakage or as an indoor unnoticed infection of a person that normally went out of the concerned facility. This could have been the case with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, but so far there isn’t evidence or indication for such incident.”

Was SARS-CoV-2 made in a Chinese lab?


The claim still lives on in various forms:

Creator Of US BioWeapons Act Says Coronavirus Is A Bio Weapon

Or:

Yes, the Virus Came from Wuhan

03/17/2020

Two Chinese scholars suggested that the virus came from bats kept in two Wuhan research centers. Their paper was promptly censored, but the CCP should explain to the world what exactly happened there.

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    Voting to close as per the ongoing-investigation clause. – Shadur Jan 28 at 20:55
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    The original claim might benefit from a bit of quoting here. It is of fundamental difference whether a lab "made" an infectious agent or whether it 'just' "worked on it", inadvertently spreading it (examples would be various diseases, like anthrax, the last case of smallpox etc). I am pretty sure 'they' did not 'make' it, but it is not certain whether they worked on something like this, or whether if they did some ran wild into the wild from there. 'Did they engineer it' or 'are they the source' needs differentiation,. – LangLаngС Jan 29 at 13:44
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    The original article has now vanished. (Retracted?) – Oddthinking Mar 22 at 22:41
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    @Oddthinking the article is back with an editorial note: "Editor’s note (March 25, 2020): Since this story ran, scientists outside of China have had a chance to study the SARS-CoV-2 virus. They concluded it does not show signs of having been manufactured or purposefully manipulated in a lab, though the exact origin remains murky and experts debate whether it may have leaked from a Chinese lab that was studying it." washingtontimes.com/news/2020/jan/26/… and two links to more recent scientific articles. – DavePhD Apr 15 at 14:42
  • Although I'm not convinced that this is actually true, I believe it's a valid question to ask and that shouldn't be closed. More nonsensical anti-Russian and anti-Chinese conspiracy theories are circulated in the mass media on a daily basis. Currently, the conspiracy theory that Russia paid bounties on dead American soldiers for example. And the theory that COVID-19 was made in a lab is more plausible and has more evidence than that. – dan-klasson Jul 3 at 0:02
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Edit (15/4/20):

Biological and genetic analysis of the virus suggests that the virus evolved naturally, i.e. was not "made in a Chinese lab".

However, as Lang Lang's answer notes, it is arguably premature to say whether the virus passed to humans

  1. directly from another animal species, or
  2. via a (presumably accidental) release of a specimen from the Wuhan Institute of Virology or a related lab.

Hypothesis 1 is more parsimonious, because the virus was already tied to the wild animal trade via the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market at a fairly early stage (December 10) (Huang et al. 2020). However, the earliest confirmed case (December 1) has not been linked to the market (ibid.). The information we have is thus inconclusive with respect to Hypothesis 1. Both Hypotheses 1 and 2 are being considered.

For context, animal contact is a more common source of outbreaks than lab accidents (think SARS, AIDS, Ebola, etc.). Yet lab outbreaks are not unheard of either. Most famously, the pandemic flu strain of 1977-78 was found to be the same as that of 1949-50, suggesting it was the result of laboratory infection from a cryogenically preserved sample.

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    This is probably not wrong (claim: "made"), but a premature answer. Biolabs can spread diseases, they did so frequently (example). It is too early to tell? – LangLаngС Jan 29 at 13:40
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    Yeah I'm gonna agree with this. The whole claim boils down to one Israeli military officer saying it could have happened with literally no evidence to back it up. He has no proof but the website is treating it as fact. If you visit the WT page on Dany Shoham (washingtontimes.com/topics/dany-shoham) there are two articles where he's ever been mentioned as well. – DenisS Jan 29 at 15:51
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    @LаngLаngС it's not premature to call it an unwarranted conspiracy theory. – Colin Jan 29 at 16:58
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    What exactly is: the "made" (probably agree) or the "origin" (surely don't know). We failed to 'correct' the question or increase its precision. As is, you answer essentially OP's claim, but one is tempted to read that as refuting the claim in WaTimes, which isn't in the question. – LangLаngС Jan 29 at 17:01
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    I largely agree, actually. What is really far fetched is that it was a Chinese-made virus. That it was an accidental outbreak from a lab is merely unlikely. – Colin Jan 29 at 19:41
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It is too early to tell. We do not know its origin. We have neither any evidence for nor anything against this claim.

1. First of all: While the question 'as is' misrepresents the origin of the claim:

The Washington Times article just says this:

Coronavirus may have originated in lab linked to China's biowarfare program

That does not say 'the lab made this'! It also does not say that this is a lab developing bio-weapons. The article just states that

the institute is linked to Beijing’s covert bio-weapons program. What seems to be known now via genomic sequencing is:

Developing a vaccine for example — whether for 'normal' viral diseases or even for something someone might want to try as a bio-weapon — is not the same as 'making' a weaponised virus. Especially not 'constructing it artificially' or even breeding it up to increased virulence…

2. Second, we have limited knowledge about this, and that state is likely to continue for quite some time.

Given what’s known about the pace at which viral genomes mutate, if nCoV had been circulating in humans since significantly before the first case was reported on Dec. 8, the 24 genomes would differ more. Applying ballpark rates of viral evolution, Rambaut estimates that the Adam (or Eve) virus from which all others are descended first appeared no earlier than Oct. 30, 2019, and no later than Nov. 29.

The progenitor virus itself was almost certainly one that circulates harmlessly in bats (as SARS does) but has an “intermediate reservoir” in one or more animals that come into contact with people, Andersen said. Presumably, that reservoir is one of the species of animals at the Wuhan market thought to be ground zero for the outbreak. The ancestor of 2019-nCoV existed in that species for some unknown time, never infecting people, until by chance a single virus acquired a mutation that made it capable of jumping into and infecting humans.

The genome sequences suggest that was a one-time-only jump. “The genomes [from the 24 samples] are very uniform,” Andersen said. “If there had been multiple introductions,” including from many different animals, “there would be more genomic diversity. This was a single introduction.”
— Sharon Begley: "DNA sleuths read the coronavirus genome, tracing its origins and looking for dangerous mutations", StatNews, Jan 24, 2020

Whether the Chinese lab in that region is linked to any bio weapons programme is of course a boon for any conspiracy theory. But this is wholly irrelevant to whether the lab is the source of that outbreak now. Even if there are zero links to 'the military': a lab that studies viruses can leak those viruses.

And that such leak might have occurred is deemed as plausible as the wholesome naturally infected via animal reservoir on the market place or in kitchen.

Conveniently, the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory in the centre of the disease outbreak is officially equipped to handle the virus, 'safely':

— Nicoletta Lanese: "Only one lab in China can safely handle the new coronavirus", Live Science, 22 Jan 2020.

Other experts other than the source quoted in the Washington Times article were also not overly excited about that lab:

But worries surround the Chinese lab, too. The SARS virus has escaped from high-level containment facilities in Beijing multiple times, notes Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey. Tim Trevan, founder of CHROME Biosafety and Biosecurity Consulting in Damascus, Maryland, says that an open culture is important to keeping BSL-4 labs safe, and he questions how easy this will be in China, where society emphasizes hierarchy. “Diversity of viewpoint, flat structures where everyone feels free to speak up and openness of information are important,” he says.

The plan to expand into a network heightens such concerns. One BSL-4 lab in Harbin is already awaiting accreditation; the next two are expected to be in Beijing and Kunming, the latter focused on using monkey models to study disease.

Lina says that China’s size justifies this scale, and that the opportunity to combine BSL-4 research with an abundance of research monkeys — Chinese researchers face less red tape than those in the West when it comes to research on primates — could be powerful. “If you want to test vaccines or antivirals, you need a non-human primate model,” says Lina.

But Ebright is not convinced of the need for more than one BSL-4 lab in mainland China. He suspects that the expansion there is a reaction to the networks in the United States and Europe, which he says are also unwarranted. He adds that governments will assume that such excess capacity is for the potential development of bioweapons.

“These facilities are inherently dual use,” he says. The prospect of ramping up opportunities to inject monkeys with pathogens also worries, rather than excites, him: “They can run, they can scratch, they can bite.”

Trevan says China’s investment in a BSL-4 lab may, above all, be a way to prove to the world that the nation is competitive. “It is a big status symbol in biology,” he says, “whether it’s a need or not.”
— David Cyranoski: "Inside the Chinese lab poised to study world's most dangerous pathogens", Nature, 22 February 2017.

This is even echoed – again – in a recent newspaper article from April 14, 2020, this time in the Washington Post: "State Department cables warned of safety issues at Wuhan lab studying bat coronaviruses"

That it is a genuine zoonosis was the immediate reaction in expert circles. That it really is 'that' is nowhere confirmed as of now. We know that the Virus was originating from Wuhan, that at least one lab working in that field is there. And that the Wuhan National Laboratory is 'declared safe'.
Not more. Accidents and other incidents can happen, and did. Whether one did at this facility remains speculation, but one that is neither proven nor disproven at this time.

Stating anything as conclusive on this question seems to be another case of China coronavirus: Misinformation spreads online about origin and scale. So please, hold your horses.

— Kat Eschner: "We’re still not sure where the Wuhan coronavirus really came from. China’s wet markets don’t tell the whole story", PopSci, January 28, 2020.

The earliest cases now analysed say that out of 41 patients 13 had no link to the sea food/wet market.

Exposure history to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale market served as an important clue at the early stage, yet its value has decreased as more secondary and tertiary cases have appeared.

Many important questions remain unanswered, including its origin, extent, and duration of transmission in humans, ability to infect other animal hosts, and the spectrum and pathogenesis of human infections.
— Chen Wang: "A novel coronavirus outbreak of global health concern", The Lancet, Published: January 24, 2020.

So it's prudent to remember that initially the MERS virus was shown to originate in a patient zero from June 2012 in Arabia, while later analysis of blood samples traced it back to an unidentified hospital outbreak in Jordan in April 2012.

We have to wait for more information.

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  • Note that '[Prof.] Lucey called for scientists to look beyond the Huanan Seafood Market and test animals and humans involved in the “supply chain of infected animals.” Animal-to-person transmission of the virus could have occurred “in one or more multiple markets, or restaurants, or farms, or with wild animals, legal or illegal trade,” he said."' So since the the connection to the animal trade is already established, focus on that industry continues as they seek to account for the earliest human cases. – Colin Jan 29 at 20:44
  • Actually, it's not "too early to tell," because they sequenced the genome. It's mutated, originally a bat virus, and not manufactured. Here's what a friend to studies and manipulates viruses (oncology applications) for a living said about that - "We do not build viruses like an erector set. By being able to sequence the entire genome, we can map where the virus was derived and what mutations allow for attachment/binding to human receptors on cells, in this case ACE2–an imperfect selection and in the case of SARS-COV-2 (coronavirus) over SARS-COV (SARS). (continued) – PoloHoleSet Mar 25 at 16:13
  • (continued) Additionally, lab engineering leaves traces. In order to insert a gene we need to use either a bacteria phage to snip the current genome and insert a new piece. This manipulation leaves traces in the same way if you snip two ends of a pipe and weld in a new section. This is further complicated by having an RNA virus. Finally, by passing other coronaviruses in nature on animal cell cultures (tissues) in vivo, we find that the mutations seen in SARS-COV-2 occur naturally." – PoloHoleSet Mar 25 at 16:13
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    @PoloHoleSet Please see the date of this premature question. I ref'd the same article elsewhere, weaknesses of that: bats or pangolin origin, we do not know it. "Made" can mean different things, you exclude 'made' with crispr etc tech, classical breeding is undetectable with this argument (ie strawman). Cultivate the virus in monkey or human cell lines for several years, infect cells with two coronas at the same time, place radiation near it, etc. All in all: it is still too early to tell the final story. Once I see a definite clue in either direction I'll update. – LangLаngС Mar 25 at 16:49
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    I'm not dinging you for that, fyi, just offering information that is relevant if anyone is reading your answer, today. They had a preliminary sequence of the genome from China in early January, and they sequenced the entire genome in France right around when you answered, but there's no way for you to get that info before it was published in the news. – PoloHoleSet Mar 25 at 17:06
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As has been stated, there is no evidence that such is the origin. From the other direction, the phylogeny of the virus seems to indicate that it diverged from an existing virus in bats. And, that ancestral virus is also ancestral to several other viruses in bats and humans, including SARS. Though SARS seems to have followed a path from bats, through civets, to humans. (Thanks to Colin in the comments for the extra information.)

So there is reason to at least not be surprised at the virus arising. It is not the first time, and it is not massively different to the previous times. It is also unsurprising that it originated in the neighborhood of Wuhan, since bats are eaten by people in this region on a fairly regular basis.

A disease crossing from another species to humans is not rare. Here is a list (from Wikipedia) of such diseases that have so crossed, and the animals associated. Note that many of these are associated with domestic animals. Humans have been getting illnesses from their livestock for a very long time. As well, from the various wild animals we come into close contact with. Rats and raccoons, for example, are in the list a few times.

So it is definitely not surprising to suppose this happened due to contact with bats. It is by no means proven, but it sure looks that way at the moment.

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    With SARS, there was a progression of bats --> civets --> humans. Quite likely that bats were again not the direct but rather the ultimate source in this case. – Colin Jan 29 at 20:48
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    But if we're calculating the odds, we need to remember that SARS only arose naturally once, compared to the multiple confirmed times it has leaked out of labs. – IKM Mar 18 at 2:08

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