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 accidentally released into the community.

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.

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?

Made in China?

Yes. It’s looking increasingly likely, say some. We are beginning to gather evidence and follow the trail that leads to a catastrophic accident in a laboratory.

No. 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?

Activities

  1. Write a short nature poem about the beauty of spring.

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.
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.

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