COVID-19 Pandemic Origins: Bioweapons and the History of Laboratory Leaks

Dacre Knight, MD

Disclosures

South Med J. 2021;114(8):465-467. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Introduction

To date, the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has taken more than 3.5 million lives. Many of these deaths have been attributed to misleading information that fragmented a coordinated effort to mitigate loss of life. Future pandemics will continue to be a threat, so it is important to lay bare the true cause of this devastation. From the beginning, the origins of the pandemic have been debated, even though a natural zoonotic transfer to humans has been determined as the likely cause; however, speculation around a viral bioweapon and laboratory leaks remains. The evidence for the origins of this current pandemic can be found in the science and history behind biological outbreaks and the signs of bioweapon use. This knowledge will help minimize the harm of future pandemics.

One microbe has just devastated our world. Severe acute respiratory syndrome-coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2), the cause of COVID-19, has shattered economies, upended patterns of life globally, and already killed >3.5 million people. More than 85 million cases were documented worldwide in <1 year,[1] and many people want to know how this happened and where the virus originated. The first reports in late 2019 indicated that an epidemic caused by a zoonotic virus was spreading from Wuhan, China, believed to have been transmitted from an animal reservoir at a live-animal market. Speculation remains that the blame lies elsewhere, however, which seems surprising to scientists. For the public, the truth is easy to question because of the vast amounts of circulating misinformation.

From the early stages, wild speculation existed regarding the origins of the virus. In March 2020, the US Department of State summoned the Chinese ambassador to protest statements of a Chinese spokesperson, who suggested that the virus was brought to Wuhan by the US military, allegedly as a bioweapon.[2] Then, a US senator suggested that the virus resulted from a botched Chinese bioweapons program.[3] Palestinian media argued that SARS-CoV-2 was a biological weapon being used by the US and Israel against China and Iran.[4] Other US officials suspected that the virus came from a Wuhan laboratory that was performing legitimate viral research because safety concerns had been previously identified at this laboratory.[5] As time went on, concern grew because China was found to be censoring the results of research into the origins of the pandemic.[6] It would not be the first time that modern research in China drew attack. In late 2018, the announcement of gene editing of babies resulted in criminal charges against a Chinese biophysicist and his two colleagues.[7] These issues have served to maintain alternative possibilities for the origin of COVID-19, based mostly on conspiracy theories and rumors that spread quickly through social media and remain difficult to stop. The virus as a bioweapon and the possible laboratory leak from legitimate research are the two most common remaining theories about the origins of SARS-CoV-2. The aim of this perspective is to show that the current pandemic is unlikely to have resulted from either bioweapons or a laboratory leak.

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