The niggling question that just won’t go away

Under the microscope: The molecular chemistry of coronavirus may hold the clue to its origins.

Could Covid-19 have been man-made and escaped from a lab in Wuhan? The overwhelming majority of serious scientists are pouring scorn on the notion. But the argument is still very much alive.

It’s a deadly virus that began in a live food market in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Everyone knows the story by now. But did you know that 280 metres from the market is a laboratory where scientists store and research infectious diseases?

According to one conspiracy theory, this is where it all started.

Few have taken this idea seriously. But now a controversial Nobel Prize-winning French virologist, Luc Montagnier, has emerged on French TV to say the chemical construction of the virus is “highly suspect”. He believes it was made in the Wuhan Institute of Virology and accidentally released into the community.

His comments came as President Trump appeared to sign-up to the theory, telling journalists that “it seems to make sense”. He warned China that there would be consequences if they were “knowingly responsible” for the outbreak. And although Trump has a history of backing conspiracy theories, there is widespread support in Western countries for holding China to account.

But is there any evidence to support the idea? An image of a broken seal on a lab fridge door has attracted huge attention online. And two years ago, the US warned about “inadequate” safety measures in China’s laboratories. Another clue is the identity of patient zero, and whether they were connected with the Wuhan research centres.

But this speculation doesn’t interest Montagnier. This new virus, he argues, contains genetic material from HIV that “could not have arisen naturally”. In other words, it was genetically modified by scientists designing a treatment for AIDS.

Other experts are not convinced. Montagnier is a distrusted figure in the scientific community, whose research into “the memory of water” has been widely criticised and ridiculed. Another French virologist, Étienne Simon Lorière, says his claims do not make sense and this genetic material is found in similar viruses. And the World Health Organisation insists there is no evidence to support the theory.

But for many, the strongest evidence that it might be true is that the Institute of Virology and the Chinese government have both denied it. Do they protest too much?

So, was Covid-19 man-made?

Made in China?

Yes. It’s looking increasingly likely, say some. When the virus spread to the rest of the world, we learned that it was more infectious and more deadly than the original reports from Wuhan. Doctors were silenced and reporters disappeared – what was China trying to hide? Now, we are beginning to gather evidence and follow the trail that leads to a catastrophic accident in a laboratory.

No. This is just another crazy conspiracy theory, say others. Fear and a Communist Party devoted to secrecy are the perfect conditions for this kind of wild speculation. The majority of experts have consistently argued that the virus is natural. Politicians promoting this theory are only trying to deflect blame away for themselves and find a scapegoat in China.

You Decide

  1. What was the last thing you believed in that turned out not to be true?
  2. Do you find it easy to tell whether something is man-made or natural?

Activities

  1. Write a short nature poem about the beauty of spring.
  2. If a virus can be made in a laboratory, what other natural things might be secretly man-made? Choose something natural (like an animal) and imagine it was designed by humans for a specific purpose. Sketch out the plot of a science-fiction short story that explains the background.

Some People Say...

“I accept we are all battling a new coronavirus that exploded from the city of Wuhan – but the real disease that plagues so many people and has plunged our world into sudden darkness is the Chinese Communist Party.”

Sheng Xue, Chinese-Canadian journalist, writer, and human rights activist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Scientists think it is highly likely coronavirus first developed in bats before spreading to pangolins sold in Chinese markets. A study of the first 41 Covid-19 patients showed that 27 had visited the same market in Wuhan. But not the first known case – raising suspicions that the virus came from somewhere else. We know that Chinese laboratories store coronavirus strains and that concerns have been raised in the past about the safety measures in place at these labs.
What do we not know?
To get to the truth, we need to separate science from politics. The US and other countries are keen to blame China for not telling the whole truth about the virus. China has indeed tried to control the story and avoid international scrutiny, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is lying about where it came from. Will the science be any clearer? Research into coronavirus continues and if there is evidence it is man-made or comes from a lab, the clue may be found under the microscope.

Word Watch

Nobel Prize
In 2008, Luc Montagnier shared the prestigious Nobel Prize for Medicine for his contribution to the discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
Virologist
Virology is the study of viruses, microscopic particles of genetic material that exploit weaknesses in organisms in order to replicate.
Conspiracy theories
Donald Trump has supported several far-fetched theories, including the belief that Barack Obama was not born in the US and that global warming is a conspiracy created by scientists.
Support
According to polling, most people in the UK want the government to sue China for damages, and lawyers in the US have already begun proceedings to do just that.
Patient zero
The name given to the first case of the virus. Last week, Fox News and the Daily Mail reported US intelligence that said the first case had been identified as a worker at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
HIV
The human immunodeficiency virus, that first appeared in the 1980s and causes AIDS, was also the target of a conspiracy theory. According to this theory, HIV was developed and released from US laboratories.

Subjects

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