Origin of COVID-19: Lies, Damned Lies and the Truth

The origin of COVID-19 remains a mystery. Like all mysteries, it’s spawning wild rumours. Find out which beliefs are justified, and which are nonsense.

We’re in an unprecedented time where everyone in the world is sharing the same experience. Our communities are at various stages in the process, but we’re are all coping with social distancing.

Almost all of us have to stay in our homes except for vital errands. Essential workers are subject to exceptional precautions prescribed by the authorities and their employers, and we’re all grateful for their service.

History shows that these are the perfect conditions for rumours to sprout. Some of these rumours are just idle speculation born out of boredom and loneliness.

Idle Speculation Born Out of Boredom and Loneliness

Malicious people and sociopaths spread other rumours for their own financial gain or out of the perverse pleasure of seeing them go viral. One of the main topics among the rumours currently circulating is the origin of the virus behind this COVID-19 pandemic.

We can start with an easy one. There’s an absurd rumour floating around that the origin of COVID-19 relates to the installation of the next generation of cell phone technology called 5G.

5G will be faster than the fourth generation we call LTE, but it has a shorter range. This means a lot of new cell phone towers are going up to reduce the size of each cell in the network.

Conspiracy Characteristic Called “Leap of Imagination”

Professor Jovan Byford, in his book Conspiracy Theories: A Critical Introduction, describes a characteristic of conspiracy theories that he calls the “leap of imagination.” The rumours linking the origin of COVID-19 to 5G telecommunication technology are a prime example.

As it happens, the world is in the middle of the highly visible process of erecting the towers and installing the hardware needed to implement 5G. The fact that this timing coincides with the coronavirus outbreak creates a golden opportunity for conspiracists to, as they put it, connect the dots.

In his landmark 1966 paper, The Conspiracy Theory of Society, Professor Karl Popper explains that, for conspiracists, there are no coincidences. The ancient Greeks believed that everything on Earth is the result of the machinations between the gods on Mount Olympus. Similarly, conspiracists believe that every significant event is part of a diabolical conspiracy by some powerful hidden elite.

Leap of Imagination that 5G Caused COVID-19 Outbreak

So the coincidence of telecommunication companies implementing 5G when the origin of COVID-19 began is not a coincidence for conspiracists. They make the leap of imagination that 5G caused the COVID-19 outbreak.

Conspiracists never explain the mechanism by which this could happen. The reason for that is that there isn’t one.

WHO Had to Publish Notices Debunking the Rumour

Last week, the World Health Organization, who, of course, have nothing more important to deal with right now, had to publish public notices debunking this rumour. The most obvious evidence against the 5G conspiracy theory is that COVID-19 is spreading fast in many countries that can’t afford 5G technology.

There’s no process by which 5G could cause the origin of COVID-19 and, of course, viruses cannot travel on radio waves. Yet, many people on social media are spreading this 5G hoax.

There’s also a sequel to the initial 5G conspiracy theories. In this newer version, the US government is taking advantage of COVID-19 social distancing to distract the public from the installation of new 5G telecommunication towers.

Social Distancing Used to Distract from 5G Installation

The factchecking website PolitiFact investigated this rumour and found that it was baseless. It seems to be inspired by the passing of Public Law No. 116-129

This new public law has nothing to do with hiding tower construction. It doesn’t say anything about 5G towers at all, and it’s unclear how hiding them would be possible.

It mandates the president to ensure data security on the 5G network. It’s been in the legislative works for about a year now, and nobody did anything unusual to get it passed during the pandemic. It’s another example of the leap of imagination.

5G Signals are Far Less Hazardous Than Ordinary Light

Underlying these rumours is the assumption that 5G is somehow toxic. The truth is that 5G signals are far less energetic than ordinary, visible light and pose no new hazards of any kind.

PolitiFact reports that this conspiracy has links to a Russian propaganda campaign. Although it’s been thoroughly debunked, Facebook users still disseminate it all over the globe.

Most probably have the best of intentions. Others are prankster trolls, and a few are foreign agents working to create unrest in western countries.

Engineered Bioweapon Conspiracy Theory

Having dispensed with the 5G rumours, we can move on to the engineered bioweapon conspiracy theory. Many conspiracists attribute the origin of COVID-19 to biological weapons research.

There are several variants of this folk tale. One is that the virus accidentally escaped from a lab that was working on germ warfare. More insidious rumours claim that the Chinese government deliberately unleashed the novel coronavirus on an unsuspecting public, maybe in conjunction with 5G technology.

 A team of researchers from Ohio State University released a paper entitled, No credible evidence supporting claims of the laboratory engineering of SARS-CoV-2. That has does nothing to curb the conspiracists’ enthusiasm.

Conspiracists think Scientists are Part of Conspiracy

In fact, predictably, the conspiracists inform us that these scientists are part of the conspiracy. The truth is that the virus is 99.8% similar to the natural SARS virus that caused a global outbreak in 2003.

 The Ohio State team wrote, “The absence of a logical targeted pattern in the new viral sequences and a close relative in a wildlife species (bats) are the most revealing signs that SARS-CoV-2 evolved by natural evolution.”

We also hear that the origin of COVID-19 is attributable to Chinese dietary habits and the animal markets called “wet markets” that support them. This is the official line of the Chinese Communist Party, who named the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan as the culprit.

First Patient Hadn’t Been to the Huanan Seafood Market

The problem with this idea comes from a research paper in the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet. It reports that the first COVID-19 patient hadn’t been to the Wuhan market.

Neither had about one-third of the first group of cases of COVID-19. As we all know by now, a crowded marketplace would be an ideal spot for the virus to spread, but that doesn’t explain the origin of COVID-19. In any case, contrary to popular belief, nobody sells bats at the seafood market.

Wu Wenjuan is a senior doctor at the Jinyintan Hospital in Wuhan. Dr. Wenjuan told the BBC that the first identified COVID-19 patient was an elderly man with dementia who lived as a shut-in.

“Lived Four or Five Buses from the Seafood Market”

Dr. Wenjuan went on to explain that he “lived four or five buses from the seafood market, and because he was sick, he basically didn’t go out.” It’s pretty clear that our initial patient didn’t catch COVID-19 at the seafood market, nor did he spread it there.

Dr. Bin Cao is a pulmonary specialist at Capital Medical University. He’s also the corresponding author of The Lancet article we discussed above.

Dr. Cao explained to Science Insider, “Now It seems clear that seafood market is not the only origin of the virus. But to be honest, we still do not know where the virus came from now.”

Could Have Been Circulating Undetected for Months

A paper in the journal Nature Medicine, tells us that the COVID-19 virus could have passed through an intermediate host and been circulating human-to-human undetected for months before doctors spotted it among the seafood market patrons. 

Dr. Daniel Lucey, an infectious disease specialist at Georgetown University, told Science Magazine that,” The virus came into that marketplace before it came out of that marketplace.”

There’s some correlation between the spread of COVID-19 and the Huanan Seafood Market. Even so, the stories arising from this factoid have become outrageous.

Stereotype of Asian Peasants Eating Unsanitary Things

They’ve fuelled the stereotype of backward Asian peasants foolishly eating an array of gross, unsanitary things. Another cliché is Asian men taking quack remedies for impotence or infertility.

The White House didn’t help the situation when it insisted on referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus.” The Chinese foreign ministry fired back with, “It might be the US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan,” during the World Military Games in Wuhan in October 2019.

Again, we see the leap of imagination. The fact that the games and the origin of COVID-19 both took place in Wuhan can’t be a mere coincidence. Never mind that Wuhan is a bustling city of over 11 million people.

They’ve Already Done the Damage

Both sides seem to have agreed to tone down all this rhetoric lately. Unfortunately, given the way conspiracy theories work, the’ve already done the damage .  Neither government can reverse it at this point.

Now, if the virus didn’t start in the seafood market and nobody deliberately engineered it, what is the origin of COVID-19? Some investigative reporting by Josh Rogin of the Washington Post seems to point to the answer.

Two laboratories in Wuhan deal with infectious diseases. One is the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), and the other is the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

”Batwoman” Studying Viruses in Bats for 16 Years

Shi Zhengli is a virologist at the WIV, and her nickname is “the batwoman.” She’s been studying viruses in bats ever since the SARS outbreak 16 years ago.

The journal Nature published a story in November 2015 reporting that Shi’s colleagues criticized the safety of her lab’s work. Simon Wain-Hobson is a virologist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris.

He warned that the virus “grows remarkably well” in human tissue. “If the virus escaped, nobody could predict the trajectory,” he told Nature.

Horseshoe Bats in Yunnan Province With 2003 SARS Virus

In a 2017 paper, Shi showed why viruses from some infected horseshoe bats she found in a cave in Yunnan province were probably related to the 2003 SARS coronavirus that originated in bats. The US Embassy in China sent a team of science diplomats to visit her and her team several times between January and March 2018. 

The team sent a diplomatic cable on January 19, 2018. It reported that “This finding strongly suggests that SARS-like coronaviruses from bats can be transmitted to humans to cause SARS-like diseases.”

So we know that the WIV was studying the SARS virus, hoping to prevent another pandemic. How safe were the conditions in the WIV lab?

Shortage of staff Needed to Safely Operate Laboratory

The same cable states, “During interactions with scientists at the WIV laboratory, they noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory.”

The scientists at WIV asked the US delegation for help. In the cable, the US team strongly urges the White House to provide that help because the work was essential and also because there were serious safety issues. The White House ignored them.

Xiao Qiang is a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley. He told Josh Rogin, “The cable tells us that there have long been concerns about the possibility of the threat to public health that came from this lab’s research if it was not being adequately conducted and protected.”

Other Lab Accredited at Lower Safety Standard

The other lab at the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention is also the target of criticism over lax safety measures. Worse, the WHO accredited it at a lower safety standard than the WIV lab, so it poses an even higher risk.

For some reason, the Chinese government is dragging its feet on providing virus samples from the earliest cases in Wuhan. Authorities have closed the WIV lab for something called “rectification.”

 Some of the critical doctors and journalists who first announced the origin of COVID-19 have faded out of sight. Shi Zhengli told Scientific American that laboratory testing showed that none of the DNA sequences in human patients matched viruses her team had sampled from bat caves. 

“That Really Took a Load Off My Mind”

“That really took a load off my mind,” she told them. “I had not slept a wink for days.”.

Despite Shi Zhengli’s reassurance, Bret Baier and Gregg Re at Fox News report that confidential sources tell them that the virus escaped from the lab because of bat to human transmission. Reportedly, an intern became infected and unknowingly passed COVID-19 to her boyfriend. He then passed it into the community. The US Secretary of State told ABC News that, “There is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan.”

The story leaves us with these facts. The WIV lab was experimenting with a SARS-like coronavirus, and it had a poor reputation for safety. Even so, the respected scientist who led the research reports that her virus doesn’t match COVID-19. Confidential sources remind us that the COVID-19 virus is not genetically engineered. So conceivably it may have come from the natural virus at WIV and then evolved slightly to become the current COVID-19 virus.

None of Us Wants to Go Through All This Again

It would be straightforward to clear up the mystery around the origin of COVID-19. All the Chinese government would have to do is show everyone samples from the WIV experiments and from the original COVID-19 patients. Then the world would know the truth.

None of us wants to go through all this again. Everyone needs to understand what led to the origin of COVID-19 and how we can prevent it from now on.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.

Learn more:
Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public: Myth busters
Fact-checking a conspiracy theory about 5G and the coronavirus
Engineered bat virus stirs debate over risky research 
How did covid-19 begin? Its initial origin story is shaky.
How China’s “Bat Woman” Hunted Down Viruses from SARS to the New Coronavirus
Clinical features of patients infected with 2019 novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China
The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2
Discovery of a rich gene pool of bat SARS-related coronaviruses provides new insights into the origin of SARS coronavirus
State Department cables warned of safety issues at Wuhan lab studying bat coronaviruses
Sources believe coronavirus outbreak originated in Wuhan lab as part of China’s efforts to compete with US
Conspiracy Theories Spread Faster Than Germs
COVID-19 Ceasefire Ignored as Wars Rage On
Origin of Life Before the Origin of Species – 4 Theories

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