17

This idea was discussed in the Washington Times.

The article discusses whether the Wuhan corona-virus 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 the Wuhan corona-virus made in a Chinese lab?

  • 20
    Voting to close as per the ongoing-investigation clause. – Shadur Jan 28 at 20:55
  • 6
    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,. – LаngLаngС Jan 29 at 13:44
  • 4
    How come the "voting to close" comment has 15 upvotes but no one actually bothered to vote? This should have been closed and locked before it hit the HNQ. Now the damage is kinda done already. – pipe Jan 29 at 18:35
  • 2
    @pipe My guess would be several of the comment votes were from people who don't have the rep to close vote on Skeptics. At any rate, I've added my close vote to it. The fact that a lot of regulars with enough rep to vote (as well as moderators) have reduced or stopped their SE usage due to the events of the last few months is probably going to make this more of a problem going forward. – reirab Jan 29 at 20:04
  • 2
    @MatasVaitkevicius The main problem is that you are the one spreading unfounded rumors right now. I had no idea that this was a conspiracy theory until you wrote the question. 11000 people has now seen the sentence "Was the Wuhan corona-virus made in a Chinese lab?" - a loaded click-baity title that can not have a reliable answer right now. Meanwhile it will keep popping up again and again. That's why it ought to have been closed ASAP, or preferably never posted. – pipe Jan 30 at 18:35
7

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 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.

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 zto 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.

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.

  • 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
57

The Washington Times article you linked itself contains multiple quotes pouring cold water on the notion that the Wuhan coronavirus was produced by the Chinese government.

Rutgers University microbiologist Richard Ebright:

“at this point there’s no reason to harbor suspicions” that the lab may be linked to the virus outbreak.

Bar Ilan University bioweapons expert Dany Shoham:

...there isn’t evidence or indication for such incident.

In other words, this is a mere conspiracy theory.

It's worth noting that the bat population in China is a natural coronavirus reservoir, and the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak is in many ways a carbon copy of the 2002 outbreak of the SARS coronavirus, whose origin was traced to bats.

  • 2
    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? – LаngLаngС Jan 29 at 13:40
  • 1
    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
  • 7
    @LаngLаngС it's not premature to call it an unwarranted conspiracy theory. – Colin Jan 29 at 16:58
  • 1
    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. – LаngLаngС Jan 29 at 17:01
  • 1
    AFAIK, there is a considerable volume of evidence linking the virus to the Wuhan seafood and live animal market. Unless this is somehow called into question, a possible release from a lab in Wuhan remains terribly unfounded to suggest. – Colin Jan 29 at 17:08
1

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.

  • 2
    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

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .