Scientists debunk coronavirus conspiracy, say it 'threatens to undermine' global efforts to stop it

A doctor looking at a lung CT image of a patient with coronavirus. Over two dozen doctors have posted an open letter disputing the conspiracy theories suggesting the virus was engineered as a bioweapon in a lab near Wuhan. (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
A doctor looking at a lung CT image of a patient with coronavirus. Over two dozen doctors have posted an open letter disputing the conspiracy theories suggesting the virus was engineered as a bioweapon in a lab near Wuhan. (Photo: STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Doctors worldwide have been working tirelessly to stop the spread of COVID-19, the new coronavirus that has infected 76,000 people and killed over 2,200. But this week, 27 medical professionals from eight countries are announcing plans to stop the spread of something else: misinformation.

In an open letter published by The Lancet, over two dozen scientists, health experts and epidemiologists dispute a conspiracy theory that the virus is a bioweapon made in a lab near Wuhan, the center of the outbreak. “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” they write. “Scientists from multiple countries have published and analyzed genomes of the causative agent…and they overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife as have so many other emerging pathogens.”

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The effort coincides with a social media campaign that the World Health Organization launched this week to provide — as Mike Ryan, PhD, head of WHO's health emergency program put it — a “vaccine against misinformation.” In colorful graphics posted to Twitter, WHO breaks down a multitude of myths that are circulating about coronavirus, including that it can be killed by cold weather, prevented through saline spray, detected by thermal scanners and spread through pets.

Although the conspiracy theory may seem like a novel response to the epidemic — which is teetering on the edge of becoming a pandemic — Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and an infectious disease expert, says that it’s a common response to this type of crisis. “Every time there is an outbreak, rumors and conspiracy theories are to be expected,” Amesh tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Much time is wasted debunking them that could be better spent on other outbreak activities.”

The 27 scientists who penned the Lancet letter write that redirecting efforts back to fighting the epidemic is part of the goal. But protecting the health workers who already are — especially in the wake of the death of Chinese doctor who spoke out about it — is, too. “These rumors are now specifically targeting scientists and health professionals who have been working extremely hard to fight this outbreak…” they write. “Some of these scientists have already received threats of violence to their families and themselves. These rumors and conspiracy theories threaten to undermine the very global collaborations that are vital to combat this disease that has already spread across continents, and for that reason have been condemned by many.”

Rumors that the virus may be man-made have been swirling since late January — aided by articles in both The Daily Mail and The Washington Times. The theory itself hinges on the idea that the virus was created as a bioweapon by scientists at the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory, a research branch of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and that it somehow leaked.

The lab itself is classified as BSL-4 — or biolevel security 4 — one of just 50 worldwide. BSL-4 status is reserved for the work with the most dangerous pathogens and operates with the highest security possible. Individuals working there are required to wear hazmat suits and use ventilated workspaces that are fully enclosed. In order to exit the lab, scientists must go through a chemical shower (which disinfects the suit), then enter a room to remove the suit and, finally, a third room where they immediately shower.

Given these precautions, scientists say it would be near impossible for contaminants to make it outside the facility. “There’s absolutely nothing in the genome sequence of this virus that indicates the virus was engineered,” Richard Ebright, PhD, a chemical biology professor at Rutgers University told the Washington Post. “The possibility this was a deliberately released bioweapon can be firmly excluded.”

Concerns about the lab stem from a 2017 paper in Nature exploring the lab, which mentions “scientists outside China” being concerned about “pathogens escaping.” But an editor’s note added in January is meant to allay these concerns. “Many stories have promoted an unverified theory that the Wuhan lab discussed in this article played a role in the coronavirus outbreak that began in December 2019,” the note reads. “Nature knows of no evidence that this is true; scientists believe the most likely source of the coronavirus to be an animal market.”

Despite this, a few public figures have continued to discuss the lab theory on TV — an action that Amesh calls “particularly dangerous.” One of the most notable is Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), who lent credence to the idea during a Feb. 16 interview on Fox News. During it, Cotton claimed the virus did not originate at a market, citing a study published in The Lancet on Jan. 26. The study did trace the virus to the animal market — finding that 66 percent of the 41 patients studied had been infected there.

Yet Cotton’s statements continued. “We don't know where it originated but we do know that we have to get to the bottom of that,” the legislator told Fox. “We also know that just a few miles away from that food market is China's only biosafety level 4 super laboratory… We don't have evidence that this disease originated there but because of China's duplicity and dishonesty…we need to at least ask the question.”

Fox News host Maria Bartiromo strongly pushed back on Cotton’s claims — as did Martha MacCallum in subsequent interviews — bringing up statements made by the Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai in a Feb. 9 CBS interview in which he called the notion of biological warfare “absolutely crazy.” Cotton stood by his comments on Fox, then later tweeted that he was not trying to repeat conspiracy theories but rather refusing to “rule out” any explanation for where it originated. (By the time of publishing, Cotton could not be reached for comment by Yahoo Lifestyle).

The market referenced by both the doctors and Cotton is an animal and seafood market in Wuhan that is believed to be the origin of the outbreak. The now-shuttered market sold a wide variety of both live and dead animals, including foxes, pigs, chickens, and rats. In a statement to Business Insider, the Wildlife Conservation Society said that the market likely made for a perfect storm. “Poorly regulated, live-animal markets mixed with illegal wildlife trade offer a unique opportunity for viruses to spillover from wildlife hosts into the human population," WCS said.

The belief that the outbreak began there (likely, after spreading from a bat to an animal sold there) has been widely supported by many top epidemiologists, doctors, national security experts and government officials. The World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and European Center for Disease Prevention and Control have all published evidence supporting this theory.

Amesh is optimistic that increasing global support for this narrative will make a difference. “Hopefully the public will understand that committed experts are devoting the time to debunk conspiracy theories,” he says. “And that these theories are interfering with real public health action that needs to be taken.”

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