Was covid-19 made in a US lab? in a Chinese lab? by a mad scientist?
(originally published on 8 April 2020, updated in September 2020)
First of all, this article in Alliance for Science is a good summary of all conspiracy theories and why you shouldn't believe them.
If you came here to read about the theory that it was made in a Wuhan lab, it's discussed further down. Sorry, but, to be fair and balanced, first you have to read the theory that it was made in the USA.
1. Was the virus created in a US lab?
There's a theory that a) the virus was accidentally engineered and leaked from a US laboratory (Fort Detrick) in August 2019, and b) accidentally spread in Wuhan during the World Military Games of October.
The theory has been dismissed in the USA as Chinese propaganda. It has actually been spread by Western conspiracy theorists. See for example Larry Romanoff (in Center for Research on Globalization) or Johan van Dongen or Ronnie Cummins or Peter Koenig. These names don't sound Chinese to me. I find it bizarre that neofascist media like Fox News blame it on Chinese propaganda when in fact it seems to originate and spread in the West.
I don't think this theory holds water, but here are the facts, as i could verify them (the facts about the mirror theory that the virus was made in a Chinese lab are explained separately later):
None of this amounts to evidence. It is just what it is: a conspiracy theory with no proof of anything that takes advantage of stupid and counterproductive bureaucratic secrets.
- Fort Detrick in Maryland was the original site of the USA's biological warfare program launched in 1943 and it is still the headquarters of the National Interagency Confederation for Biological Research that leads the National Biodefense Strategy launched by Trump in 2018. A story of the lab reads like a horror movie (see for example this article). The Fort Detrick lab is a BSL-4 facility. Biosafety level 4 laboratories conduct research on easily transmitted deadly pathogens such as the ebola virus. There are testimonies from former employees that Fort Detrick specifically works on weaponizing coronaviruses.
- July 2019: The CDC issues a "cease and desist order" to the top-secret laboratory of Fort Detrick, run by the US military, that is conducting research on lethal microbes such as the Ebola virus, because the lab does not show "sufficient systems in place to decontaminate wastewater", i.e. out of fear that pathogens could leak out
- August 2019: A wave of lung pneumonias is blamed in the USA on vaping from e-cigarettes
- August 5: The CDC closes the Fort Detrick biolaboratory
- September 2019: (Several websites mention Japanese tourists who got sick while in the USA in September but no website knows their names, which convinced me that this is fake)
- October 18, 2019: The World Military Games open in Wuhan with 300 people flying from the USA (and Article in Xinhua welcoming the athletes)
- October 18, 2019: The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, in partnership with the World Economic Forum and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, hosts "Event 201 - a Global Pandemic Exercise", which simulates a pandemic killing 65 million worldwide
- October 2019: It is alleged that 5 of the 300 US citizens visiting Wuhan for the World Military Games are hospitalized for a pneumonia-like infection, but this story is debunked by the Chinese themselves
- November 17, 2019: The first case of covid-19 is detected in Hubei province, according to an article in the March 13 South China Morning Post by Josephine Ma, citing an unpublished Chinese government report
- November 24, 2019: The CDC reveals that Fort Detrick reported two breaches of containment in 2019 (see for example Military.com)
- December 2019: The outbreak in Wuhan
- January 17: The Wuhan Municipal Health Commission states that "An analysis of the epidemiological data of new coronavirus-infected pneumonia cases released in the previous period found that some cases have no history of exposure to the South China Seafood Wholesale Market"
- January 21: China's CDC states that "Despite extensive searching, no animal from the market has thus far been identified as a possible source of the infection" (paper)
- January 22: ABC7 quotes documents from the CDC outlining safety violations at Fort Detrick during 2019
- January 25: Kristian Andersen at the Scripps Research Institute posts his analysis of 27 available genomes on Virological.org and concludes that they had "a most recent common ancestor" - meaning a common source - as early as 1 October 2019"
- January 29: Biosecurity expert Richard Ebright of Rutgers University debunks the theory that the virus was leaked by a bioweapon lab
- January 29: A paper by George Gao of the China CDC and others states that five of the initial six patients had no exposure to the seafood market and that human-to-human transmission was underway as early as "the middle of December 2019" ("Early Transmission Dynamics in Wuhan, China, of Novel Coronavirus-Infected Pneumonia")
- January 31: Science Magazine quotes Daniel Lucey, an infectious disease specialist at Georgetown University, as asserting that "the virus was already circulating silently among humans before it contaminated the seafood market" (Science Magazine article)
- January 31: Indian scientists publish a sloppy study (later retracted) that claims similarities between the covid-19 virus and the HIV, the basis for several conspiracy theories blaming the US for making the covid-19 virus
- February 25: The National Center for Medical Intelligence, located at Fort Detrick, warns the US government that the coronavirus is likely to become a pandemic, despite the fact that there are very few cases and no deaths outside Asia (and 15 days before the World Health Organization will reach the same conclusion)
- February 27: Chinese respiratory specialist Zhong Nanshan states at a press conference that "though the COVID-19 was first discovered in China, it does not mean that it originated from China"
- March 5: Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations of the USA, debunks the theory that the virus was made in a lab
- March 10: A petition on the White House website demands details on the reason for closing the Fort Detrick biolab
- March 12: Zhao Lijian, the spokesperson of China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, tweets that "It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan"
- March 17: Kristian Andersen's team at the Scripps Research Institute publishes an analysis of the coronavirus' genome showing its likely genetic path as it jumped from animals to humans but also states that "no animal coronavirus has been identified that is sufficiently similar to have served as the direct progenitor of SARS-CoV-2" ("The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2", Nature Medicine paper). The paper is widely credited with debunking the conspiracy theory because it concludes with the sentence "We do not believe any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible" (the paper shows that the odds are astronomical against a lab release as opposed to an event in nature), but it contains that unnerving statement.
- March 21: David Franz, former deputy commander of the lab, and Judith Miller, author of "Germs - Biological Weapons and America's Secret War," write an article for the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, detailing Fort Detrick biolab's history of safety issues ( "A Biosecurity Failure")
- March 27: After 8 months, the CDC reopens Fort Detrick's laboratory. The previous commander, Barbara Holcomb, has retired and the institute has a new commander, Darrin Cox. No explanation is provided for why it took 8 months, what kind of disinfection and cleaning took 8 months. No employee of the lab is authorized to talk to the press. This mystery inflames conspiracy theories on what the USA may be trying to hide.
- March 31: Trump's supporter Victor Hanson (author of "The Case for Trump") writes an article claiming that the coronavirus started spreading in California since the fall of 2019. While the article is intended to mock the lockdown in California, it provides a valid argument to those who think that the virus was made in the USA and later exported to China.
- April 27: Daniel Lucey writes that new data "support an alternative hypothesis that the original human infections began before December, and not in this seafood market... We interpret these data to be most consistent with a naturally-occurring spillover infection from an animal species to humans at a different location in September-November... We have not found evidence to support any theory that the origins of SARS-CoV-2 among humans occurred in a laboratory either intentionally or by accident."
- May 14: Two residents of Snohomish County in Washington state (with no travel history) who fell ill with COVID-19-like symptoms in December, one month before the first reported case of COVID-19 in the USA, have now tested positive for antibodies against the new coronavirus (story)
- May 20: 31 scientific societies of the USA sign a letter of protest, and 77 Nobel laureates sign another letter, after Trump's National Institutes of Health cancels a grant to the New York-based nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance that was funding a joint US-Chinese research to trace the evolution of the virus (as if the USA was afraid of what they would discover)
The Chinese have a point, though, that the first country to report a virus is
not necessarily the country where the virus was born. They probably know the
story of the "Spanish flu" of 1918 better than most US citizens.
It was named "Spanish" because Spain was the first country to report it,
but even at the time it was known that the flu was already killing people
in Europe and the USA before it entered Spain.
At the time, most countries were
involved in WWI and didn't want to demoralize public and troops.
Spain was neutral and didn't have that concern, so it went public right
away, especially since its own king got sick. Hence the name:
"the Spanish flu". Today all historians agree that
the "Spanish" flu started in the USA in early 1918. US soldiers then
spread it to France in March 2018. From France it spread to Spain in November 1918.
Knowing that story, the Chinese are justified in warning that this virus was
first reported by China but it doesn't mean it was born in China.
On May 4 French media reported that a man of Arabic descent (Amirouche Hammar) died with covid-19 on December 27, way before anyone died in Wuhan. He was a humble fishmonger living in Bobigny (Seine-Saint-Denis department, northeast of Paris), considered the poorest and most violent neighborhood of France, mostly famous for the 2017 riots, NOT for international travel. No Chinese community there, and no Chinese tourists. It is not clear how that virus reached a Muslim neighborhood of France so early, but it's a bit unlikely that it arrived from Wuhan.
On May 11 Brazilian scientists calculated that covid-19 was already spreading in Rio de Janeiro before the carnival, in January, just before the first death in Wuhan. How many people travel between Wuhan and Rio de Janeiro? I suspect that number is very small. How many people travel between Rio de Janeiro and the USA? Thousands.
This conspiracy theory gets their credibility from the fact that the USA has a record of such incidents. In July 2014 the CDC admitted that it found forgotten vials of of the variola virus that causes smallpox at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, near Washington. In May 2015 the Pentagon admitted that a Defence Department lab in Utah had accidentally shipped live anthrax samples to several labs in the USA and to a US military base in South Korea.
In 2015 USA Today published an investigation of US biological labs and found systematic safety failures (article).
And the US public seems to have forgotten the anthrax attacks of 2001, which were eventually revealed to be the work of an Fort Detrick biologist, Bruce Ivins, who committed suicide.
Old stuff? The most recent report from the Federal Select Agent Program, that keeps an eye on US biolabs, lists 193 cases of release of a select agent or toxin. What is a "select agent"? They are pathogens "that have the potential to pose a severe threat to public health and safety".
2. Was the virus created in a Chinese lab?
Now let's look at the theory that the virus was made in a Chinese lab.
In the USA the Trump supporters, trying to deflect attention from Trump's awful handling of the epidemic, have publicized a mirror conspiracy theory that the virus would be coming out of a Wuhan lab.
Just like the main people behind the Fort Detrick conspiracy are Westerners (not Chinese), the main people behind the Wuhan Lab conspiracy are Chinese.
Further evidence that the virus could have escaped from the Wuhan lab:
the few Western scientists who visited the Wuhan lab in previous years were horrified by the lack of precautions. Apparently the degree of safety there was even worse than at Fort Detrick.
- January 19: Li-Meng Yan, who works at the Hong Kong School of Public Health, appears on the "LuDe Show", owned by exiled Chinese businessman Guo Wengui, and claims that China mishandled the epidemic (Note: there seems to be no record of what she actually said during that interview)
- January 23: A study by Zhengli Shi of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a woman who in November 2017 had published a paper showing that horseshoe bats from Yunnan province were the likely cause of the SARS coronavirus in 2003, and who has just published two comprehensive studies of coronaviruses in MDPI and in Nature magazine, shows that the new virus' genetic sequence is 96.2% identical to that of a bat coronavirus (found in horseshoe bats of Yunnan) and 79.5% identical to the SARS coronavirus (paper) but note that the human genome is 99% identicaly to the chimp genome so 96% is actually not a lot
- January 24: The first paper is published in a scientific magazine by George Gao and others of China's CDC challenges the theory that the epidemic began in the Wuhan seafood market because the earliest case, a patient who became ill on Dec 1, had no link to the seafood market
- February 14: China's president Xi in person calls for speedy approval of a biosecurity law to protect from biological accidents
- February 16: Chinese scientists Botao Xiao and Lei Xiao of Guangzhou's South China University of Technology publish a paper in which they hint at the possibility that the virus was leaked accidentally by Wuhan's Center for Disease Control and Prevention, located 280 meters away from the Hunan Seafood Market. Others note that Wuhan hosts an Institute of Virology (13 kms from the wet market), China's only biosafety level-4 lab. This is the origin of the mirror conspiracy theory: that the virus was leaked from a Chinese lab.
- February 16: The Global Times, a newspaper controlled by the Chinese government, publishes an article titled "Biosafety guideline issued to fix chronic management loopholes at virus labs" that admits problems in labs like the one in Wuhan
- March 11: Zhengli Shi of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, interviewed by Scientific American, is quoted as saying "If coronaviruses were the culprit... could they have come from our lab?" (article)
- March 17: China expels 13 US journalists working for the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, the first time since Mao's times that so many US journalists are expelled. While this is officially done in retaliation for the USA classifying five Chinese-owned media organizations as foreign missions, de facto it silences foreign investigations into the Chinese outbreak and inflames conspiracy theories on what China may be trying to hide.
- April 14: The Washington Post discovers that in 2018 the US embassy in China, after visiting the Wuhan Institute of Virology, sent two diplomatic cables to Washington warning that the lab's unsafe work on bat coronaviruses risks causing a new SARS-like pandemic (quote: "SARS-like coronaviruses from bats can be transmitted to humans to cause SARS-like diseases").
- April 16: An anonymous paper titled titled "Evidence SARS-CoV-2 Emerged From a Biological Laboratory in Wuhan, China" appears on Github (See the P.S.)
- April 28: Li-Meng Yan, dismissed from the Hong Kong School of Public Health, flees to the USA and applies for exile
- April 29: A New York Times investigation reveals that Trump has pressured the CIA and NSA to "prove" that the virus came from a Chinese lab.
- April 30: Trump says he has evidence that the coronavirus came from a Chinese lab, but he can't reveal it, a few hours after the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a statement that "The intelligence community also concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was NOT man-made or genetically modified."
- May 3: Trump and Mike Pompeo claim to have evidence that the virus escaped from a Chinese lab, based on a report by the Multi-Agency Collaboration Environment (MACE). Quote from Mike Pompeo: "enormous evidence".
- May 16: Mike Pompeo in an interview with Breitbart backs away from the theory that the virus escaped from a Chinese lab (quote: "we know it began in Wuhan, but we don't know from where or from whom")
- May 17: The report produced by the Multi-Agency Collaboration Environment (MACE), that Trump and Mike Pompeo claimed as evidence that the virus escaped from a Chinese lab, is proven false
- July 10: Li-Meng Yan appears on Fox News but only accuses China of a cover-up, not of manufacturing or releasing the virus
- July 11: The Hong Kong School of Public Health issues a statement that Li-Meng Yan "never conducted any research on human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus at HKU during December 2019 and January 2020"
- September 14: Li-Meng Yan publishes an article titled "Unusual Features of the SARS-CoV-2 Genome Suggesting Sophisticated Laboratory Modification Rather Than Natural Evolution and Delineation of Its Probable Synthetic Route" for the Rule of Law Society (the 3 coauthors of the papers are all members of the Rule of Law Society, and none of them is a scientist), which was founded by Trump's advisor Steve Bannon. Several virologists in the USA and Britain call it "entirely fictional" and no scientific website accepts to republish it.
- September 16: Li-Meng Yan appears on Fox News again and this time accuses the Chinese government of intentionally engineering and releasing the virus
In my opinion, the fact that truly justifies suspicion against China is that China expelled all the Western journalists who were investigating the epidemic
(and silenced its own Chinese journalists and scientists).
This makes us think that China is trying to hide something, just like
when it banned foreign journalists from Xinjiang (the province with the
massive "re-education camps" for Muslims).
Lesson learned for China: if you are not hiding anything, do not behave like you are hiding something, because people will conclude that you are hiding something.
Update of August 2020: International reporters were given access by China to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in August 2020 (notably a 5-hour visit by NBC News, one of the USA's main channels). As of today, the USA has not allowed international reporters into the Fort Detrick biolab.
In my humble opinion, we know more about the Wuhan lab than we know about
the Fort Detrick lab. In fact, just about everything suspicious about the Wuhan
lab was revealed by Chinese scientists themselves, whereas the US scientists
of the Fort Detrick lab and the CDC have told us very little about what
went wrong at the Fort Detrick biolab. We know a lot about the Wuhan lab from
both scientific papers and interviews with its directors.
We heard nothing about the Fort Detrick biolab from its personnel.
If there is censorship at work, the US censorship has been as effective as the Chinese one.
3. My conclusion
That said, neither theory works too well if you study the science behind this virus. The "scientific papers" that support this or that conspiracy theory are all garbage: a high-school student with elementary knowledge of biology could make them up (see the P.S.).
Whether it happened in Wuhan or somewhere else, the most likely origin is still that the virus jumped from an animal into a human body, just like many other diseases.
In general, i am more worried about the "mad scientist" scenario.
The Chinese scientist (Jiankui He) who genetically engineered twins was not
authorized by any lab. The anthrax letters of 2001
were sent by a disgruntled US scientist (Bruce Ivins).
North Korea didn't get the nuclear bomb from China or Russia but from
Pakistan's mad scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan.
For example, i would suspect molecular biologist
Judy Mikovits before i suspect either the Wuhan lab or the Fort Detrick lab.
She seems to fit the "mad scientist" category,
she seemed to know a lot about this virus before
the top scientists of the world did (amazing, given that she has no access
to any major equipment),
she advises people NOT to wear a face mask,
and she's been trying so hard to stop the people
who are fighting the epidemic, as if they were ruining her masterplan.
That's my conspiracy theory: a mad scientist engineered the virus in
her basement and now she's spinning disinformation to help her virus kill
as many people as possible. Smile.
Watch out for the Christian fundamentalists, for the Q cult, for Q Anon (#QAnon), for people like Tracy Diaz (aka TracyBeanz), and for David Hayes (PrayingMedic) who just before the covid-19 pandemic published a book eerily titled "Calm Before the Storm" as if he knew that something was about to happen, for Jim Watkins, the owner of 8chan, the online platform preferred by the white suprematists who killed 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso and 51 Muslims at two New Zealand mosques, and for Falun Gong whose newspaper "Epoch Times" publicizes all of these folks.
These are the modern-day terrorists, much more dangerous than any government lab.
Al Qaeda tried to obtain biological weapons and failed. These people may succeed.
P.S. of May 5
As i wrote, i don't believe that either of these conspiracy theories holds
water because the science consistently points at a virus jumping from a bat
to a human. But the Trump government and its supporters at Fox News have engaged into a massive campaign to prove
the theory of the Wuhan lab, a campaign eerily reminiscent of the 2003 campaign
to prove that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
Among the many "studies" that have been circulating,
this one titled "Evidence SARS-CoV-2 Emerged From a Biological Laboratory in Wuhan, China" has been particularly effective. It is anonymous, which should
already raise all sorts of alarm bells, because there is no reason to remain
anonymous when you are saying precisely what your president (Trump) wants you to say.
I don't see anything interesting in it, but it is presented in a way to make
the conclusions credible even though the conclusions don't follow from the
It's a collection of well-known papers. It only proves that the Wuhan lab was conducting important and useful research. The most important papers were all written by Chinese scientists. These are all distinguished scientists, who published in English in international journals in order to share their knowledge with
other scientists. Shame on those who exploit scientific cooperation for
their political motives.
The document gets ridiculous when it spends pages and pages trying to "prove"
things that the Chinese said themselves.
So much discussion about the bats from Yunnan... Zhengli Shi of the Wuhan Institute of Virology of the Wuhan lab always said it, in multiple interviews.
Every coronavirus hunter went to Yunnan to hunt those bats.
Peter Daszak, formerly of Columbia University and now head of the
EcoHealth Alliance, did the same thing in 2013.
In fact, he collaborated with Shi on her coronavirus experiments at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Linfa Wang at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore is another world expert in bat coronaviruses
But it's an old trick: if you turn it into a long discussion
it feels like YOU, the great Sherlock Holmes, discovered something new,
and solved a great mystery.
They conclude "Wuhan Institute of Virology has..."
and then they list things that the institute itself has always said
it was doing. Where's the mystery?
Many labs around the world conducted similar research,
using similar tools and methods. And?
Some statements are ridiculously false but that's ok
("WIV and WHCDC are extremely close to Huanan Seafood Market": define "close" -
they are 13 kms away;
"There were likely no bats naturally living in Wuhan": sure?)
The document also twists some facts in comic ways.
Eg "In January 2018, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing took the unusual step of repeatedly sending U.S. science diplomats to the Wuhan Institute of Virology".
Yeah, right: the US embassy is free to send whoever it wants to a top-secret
Chinese lab, right? The truth is that China invited the US scientists to visit
the institute. Why? Scientific pride.
As far as biolab accidents go, the USA has had a lot more than the ones they
list, simply because it has more biolabs and much older ones.
Books have been written about the US biolab accidents.
It is written by someone who is clearly anti-Chinese because it omits some
details that politically speaking are important:
* January 11: an important meeting of the communist party takes place in Wuhan, as scheduled. They could have postponed it or changed the venue. They didn't. Were they suicidal?
* The document says "Wuhan officials censored local medical professionals" but it never adds that those officials were later fired by Beijing (a rare occurrence), including the very chief of the local Communist Party.
Documents like this one are certainly very useful to distract attention from
the colossal responsibilities of Donald Trump,
and to further sow discord between the USA and China.
Who benefits? Russia, of course.
Other studies on the origin of the virus
- In November 2020 a study by Italy's National Cancer Institute about people who were screened for cancer in Lombardy shows that several patients already had covid antibodies in early October 2019 (paper). Quote: "antibodies were detected in 111 of 959 (11.6%) individuals, starting from September 2019 (14%), with a cluster of positive cases (>30%) in the second week of February 2020 and the highest number (53.2%) in Lombardy". Unless there is another explanation for why covid antibodies would arise in people, covid was in Italy in September 2019, three months before the outbreak in Wuhan.
- Also in November 2020: A retrospective serological study by the CDC finds that covid antibodies were present in blood samples taken in mid December in several locations of the USA (paper)
- Also in November 2020: a study by Libing Shen (Chinese Academy of Sciences), Funan He (Fudan University) and Zhao Zhang (University of Texas at Houston) tried to pinpoint the least mutated genetic strain of the coronavirus, which should be its phylogenetic root. They observed that the Indian subcontinent has the highest strain diversity and estimated that the earliest transmission from an animal to a human host happened in July or August 2019 (paper). According to this study, covid was born somewhere in India in the summer of 2019.
- In December 2020 the CDC published a study that found covid in early December 2019 in Italy (paper).
- In January 2021 Italian scientists found traces of covid in skin biopsies conducted in Milan in November 2019 (paper).
A Timeline of Covid-19.
Covid-19: An introduction and summary,
The Clown & the Virus
Sinophobia & Covid-19 .
Sinophobia & Covid-19 in US Media .
TM, ®, Copyright © 2020 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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