Engineering of the COVID-19 virus in a lab: Does this theory hold water?

Mahesh Koirala

Mahesh Koirala

With the aggressive spread of COVID-19 across the world, unverified news of it being a bio-weapon has been spreading rapidly through social media platforms, text messages, and even through mainstream media. Even the intelligentsia suspects the possible engineering of SARS-CoV-2, the strain of coronavirus that causes COVID-19, in a research facility.

Previously, people in the world were acquainted with computer viruses that affected their mobiles, computers, and other electronic gadgets. This is the first time in history people across nations have been suspecting the creation of biological virus and fearing that it could be the result of genetic manipulation.

The suspicion became viral after the Washington Times in January 2020 ran a news story suggesting that the virus may have originated in a lab linked to China’s bio-warfare program. Fox News also published a story on April 15 claiming the disease to have likely originated in the Wuhan lab, as a Chinese plot to compete with the US. Similar stories have inundated Facebook and Twitter posts and WhatsApp messages.

The lab origin theory

Massive casualty shattering world economy and peril lurking around causes people to become paralyzed with deep fear. Such fear and cluelessness about the origin of the pandemic has forced people to ask whether the virus is biologically engineered or not.

Scientists around the world have said that the lab origin theory of the virus is baseless.

Immunologist Nigel McMillan from the Menzies Health Institute Queensland says that SARS-CoV-2, the virus strain that causes COVID- 19, is natural and no system exists in the lab till today to manufacture it.

The University of Sydney Evolutionary Virologist Edward Holmes has explained that the closest known relative of SARS-CoV-2 is a bat virus named RaTG13, which was kept at the Wuhan Institute of Technology (WIV) and the level of genome sequence divergence between SARS-CoV-2 and RaTG13 is equivalent to an average of 50 years of evolutionary change. He says that there is no chance that SARS-CoV-2 was engineered.

COVID-19 is the product of natural evolution, according to the findings of Kristian Andersen, an associate professor of immunology and microbiology at Scripps Research.

So, science strongly rejects the possibility of the engineering of the COVID-19 virus and classifies the associated story as a hoax and a conspiracy theory. Though the present world has made advancements in science unparalleled in history, it has not acquired the capability to induce mutation in a virus to create a new strain. So, two theories that COVID-19 virus is a biological weapon invented to destroy enemy lives and the virus may have escaped erroneously out of a lab are big fat lies.


Image credit: Getty Images

The World Health Organization (WHO) has called the spread of such kind of wrong information ‘infodemic’ and has cautioned everyone to be aware.

Reasons for the spreading of rumors

Politicization of the pandemic is the main reason behind the spreading of such rumors. Politics in recent times has not been about rationality and reality. We are living in a world in which the human mind welcomes any answers for complicated problems and politics jumps in to exploit it.

History has time and again shown that political partisans have unashamedly propagandized blatant lies. It is human nature to blame others rather than bearing responsibility and rectifying it because it is too painful to accept one’s fault. Political partisans play blame games and augment propaganda because such activity serves their interest by diverting public attention from their failures and from the real issues while also tarnishing others’ image.

The US has been the worst hit by the pandemic and has faced an embarrassing debacle in containing the spread of the virus. Laggard response and bungled handling of the pandemic by President Donald Trump’s administration relative to the quick response and efficient management of Asian nations like Vietnam, China and South Korea has tarnished the US’s image. With impending elections, the spread of misinformation vilifying China can win voters for the contenders in the world’s superpower nation.

The second reason is psychological. Daniel Kahneman, an American psychologist and Nobel laureate in Economics, says that when humans process too much complex information they automatically use mental shortcuts. The author of the world bestseller Thinking Fast and Slow says that the brain is lazy and curbs the usage of its bigger potential, allowing people to draw quick conclusions, and in turn, leading to errors. Thus quickly arriving at a conclusion using mental short-cuts without rationally checking the facts is a cause for falling for this hoax.

The other reason is that people are preyed upon by some media which unhesitatingly scatter misinformation. Some also do it to deliver sensation for political and monetary benefits. The spread, amplification and reinforcement of misinformation on the internet and social media platforms have been encouraged by lack of appropriate censorship. At a time when a large population has been forced to remain insides houses and offices, the misinformation spreads like wildfire as people have fewer tasks to execute and more time to browse through social media platforms.

The writer is an independent thinker with Master’s in Political Science.

Published on 1 May 2020