COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories: Was SARS-CoV-2 Made in a Lab?

And if not, why do people keep believing that it is?

Posted Apr 21, 2020

Omni Matryx/Pixabay
Source: Omni Matryx/Pixabay

"Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus." —Andersen KM, et al. (2020)1

COVID-19 Misinformation

Under ongoing threat from a novel viral pandemic, it’s hardly surprising that misinformation has been circulating about SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Science has been remarkably fast in discovering the causative agent, identifying its genetic sequence and structure, and getting to work on clinical trials for therapies and vaccines. But as an inherently iterative process, scientific discovery is more often slow, requiring “re-search”—that is, looking again and making repeated observations that are eventually accepted as facts and making corrections when findings aren’t replicated.

Consequently, much of what we’ve learned about COVID-19 has come in fits and starts and has been subject to revision. That has unfortunately resulted in some inconsistent information including early advice about not wearing masks or about the potential, but inadequately tested, benefits of interventions like hydroxychloroquine.

That said, most of the misinformation that’s been circulating about COVID-19 hasn’t been a result of scientific trial and error so much as it’s come from armchair speculators on the internet and cable TV pundits expressing opinions and intuitions without any actual expertise. This has amounted to a vivid demonstration of the “Dunning-Kruger Effect” (whereby those with less actual knowledge about a subject have the disproportionately greatest confidence in that subject) as well as findings by Yale psychologists Matt Fisher and Frank Keil who demonstrated that expertise in one domain of knowledge increases confidence across other domains, even when knowledge of those domains is actually low.2

Where Did SARS-CoV-2 Come From?

Misinformation about COVID-19 has run the gamut of simple misconceptions to more ridiculous falsehoods and of course conspiracy theories. One of the most common conspiracy theories that’s been floated since the beginning of COVID-19 hitting the US has been the idea that SARS-CoV-2 is a man-made bioweapon that either escaped a Wuhan research lab or was released deliberately. 

A Pew survey from March found nearly a third of Americans believed that SARS-CoV-2 was man-made in a lab. Less than half believed that it “came about naturally” and a quarter were “unsure.” What’s more, nearly a quarter of those surveyed endorsed the belief that SARS-CoV-2 was not only man-made but that it was developed intentionally

In this edition of Psych Unseen, we’ll take a look at this claim and discuss why it persists despite being mostly debunked.

Based on early medical research, it was concluded that SARS-CoV-2 arose naturally in the wild, jumping from bats to humans possibly through an intermediate host like pangolins. The suspected location of "patient zero" was a “wet market” in the city of Wuhan that sells live animals including bats for human consumption, where many of those initially presenting with COVID-19 had reportedly visited.

Soon, however, word spread that there’s also a laboratory, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, located near the wet market where research on bat coronaviruses and the potential for human transmission has been going on for years. Despite repeated denials from Chinese officials that SARS-CoV-2 came from this lab, the coincidence of a virology lab studying bat coronaviruses near the site of the initial outbreak has been too tempting for many people to discount. In February, the New York Post published an op-ed claiming SARS-CoV-2 had possibly escaped from the lab and just last week, Fox News reported new “sources” claiming the same thing. Soon thereafter, President Trump echoed those suspicions in press briefing comments with a subsequent announcement of a "full-scale investigation" to find out the truth.

Although none of these sources have gone so far as to claim evidence that SARS-CoV-2 was man-made or that it was deliberately developed for nefarious purposes, that hasn’t stopped people from speculating along those lines.

 Morgan Ingalls/National Park Service, Public Domain
Myotis lucifugus.
Source: Morgan Ingalls/National Park Service, Public Domain

The Evidence Says SARS-CoV-2 Was Not Man-Made

Over the past several weeks, we’ve been seeing a kind of evolving gradient of conspiracy belief about the origins of SARS-CoV-2. As mentioned, it starts with the idea that it might have come from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, perhaps accidentally infecting an employee who became “patient zero.” The next step of conspiracy belief—that a bat coronavirus was deliberately altered by Chinese scientists to create SARS-CoV-2 has been a topic of debate. But in March, a scientific paper published by Dr. Kristian Andersen at The Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, together with an international group of researchers mostly located here in the US, reported that an analysis of SARS-CoV-2 genome strongly supported that it arose naturally from bats and that the premise that it was man-made was “implausible.”1 The reasoning was based on several findings related to how scientists would most likely go about altering a bat coronavirus to infect humans and how those strategies don’t match up with what we actually know about SARS-CoV-2.

First, it doesn't have the main structure of any viral “backbone” used in previous research involving “reverse genetic engineering” that's been ongoing in an effort to study the human transmissibility of bat coronaviruses ever since the original SARS-CoV pandemic of 2002-2003. Instead, the novel virus is 97% similar to a known naturally-occurring bat coronavirus called BatCoV RaTG13.3

Second, SARS-CoV-2 has a “spike protein” with a “receptor binding domain” (the part that attaches to human cells and allows it to get inside them) that doesn't match up with human cell receptors as well as SARS-CoV does. So in other words, if scientists deliberately created SARS-CoV-2's spike protein, they made it less infectious to humans compared to what was already available. If that’s the case, it would be like a burglar who already had a working key but instead tried to open a door by making a lock-pick that didn’t fit as well.

Now, it just so happens that a novel “cleavage site” in the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein does indeed allow enzymes within the human body to change its structure so that it’s infectious to people after all, but that's far more likely to have occurred by a random mutation in nature or by genetic transfer through an intermediate host like pangolins (just as SARS-CoV is thought be have been genetically altered when it passed from bats to humans through civet cats) than to have been anything that scientists deliberated contrived.

The reality is that few of us have the technical expertise to fully understand or be convinced by the arguments described in Andersen's paper, even as they've been distilled in the lay press. Consequently, what we believe about SARS-CoV-2’s origin boils down to who we trust for knowledge, or what’s known as “epistemic trust.” And once epistemic trust has been weakened by misinformation, whether due to initial efforts by China to downplay the outbreak or inconsistent guidelines and recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO) about whether COVID-19 is spread by aerosols or whether we should all be wearing masks, epistemic trust is replaced by epistemic mistrust, making it easy to move farther along the conspiracy theory gradient where metaphors about “slippery slopes” and “falling down the rabbit hole” are apt. 

Have Scientists Been Trying to Create a Coronavirus Bioweapon?

Last week, online sources renewed conspiracy thinking about the origin of SARS-CoV-2 by discussing a research study from 2015 that was published by U.S. investigators collaborating with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The study demonstrated how reverse-genetic engineering was used to create a hybrid or "chimera" bat coronavirus capable of infecting humans by combining parts of other known viruses.4

As suggested earlier, this kind of “gain of function” research has been going on since the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak with the intention of predicting how another such pandemic might arise, just as it has now. Such research is not without controversy due to potential risks of accidental release or deliberate use for biological warfare. But while the idea that scientists have been experimenting with reverse genetic engineering of coronaviruses might sound scary and plays into tropes about the potentially malevolent intentions of “evil scientists,” the actual research also demonstrates what kind of deliberate strategies would be used to engineer such a virus—that is, the very strategies that Andersen note are not present in SARS-CoV-2.

A lesser-known finding cited in Andersen's paper is that another naturally-occurring bat coronavirus was recently found to have a cleavage site which enables it to infect humans similar to SARS-CoV-2.5 This research was performed here in the US investigators without any Chinese collaboration.

This latest discovery of a bat coronavirus in a US lab with a cleavage site that confers human infectivity through a mechanism similar to SARS-CoV-2 could stoke the counter-conspiracy theory offered by Chinese officials that SARS-CoV-2 originated here in the US and was brought to China by the US military. Except that it doesn't actually support it at all, because it's clearly not the same virus as SARS-CoV. In fact, all this kind of "tit-for-tat" really demonstrates is the political expediency of using unsubstantiated conspiracy theories to point fingers of blame.

Where’s the Conspiracy?

To be clear, the idea that SARS-CoV-2 might have arisen naturally in bats, but first infected someone working at the Wuhan Institute of Virology remains a possibility, although American researchers familiar with the lab have discounted its likelihood. In any case, that theory doesn't qualify as a conspiracy theory and neither does the idea that it might have been deliberately man-made, at least not by itself. 

To achieve conspiracy theory status, one would have to take the next step along the gradient, believing that SARS-CoV-2 was not only man-made, but deliberately fabricated with the intention of being used a bioweapon. After that, the final step would be to believe that it was also intentionally released out of the lab to cause harm and that the original “wet-market” narrative represented a deliberate lie intended to cover-up the truth.

These theories are purely speculative, with existing evidence that refutes them, such that they meet the definition of a conspiracy theory—they reject current authoritative accounts as well as published scientific evidence in favor of a counter-narrative that involves both nefarious intentions and an intentional cover-up of the truth. 

But whether or not there’s actually objective evidence to support speculative theories about the origin of SARS-CoV-2 is almost beside the point. Once we’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of searching for answers based on the premise that conventional narratives are deliberate falsehoods, our definition of what constitutes “objective evidence” changes and we become vulnerable to a broader range of speculative opinions and misinformation mixed in with reliable information that we encounter along the way.

Due to confirmation bias, this search for answers is often steered by not only an attraction to counter-narratives that contradict authoritative sources of information but by other preexisting concerns and suspicions as well. For example, some COVID-19 conspiracy theories are reinforced by racial or political prejudices that are playing out now in relation to China and the WHO's potentially conflicted relationship with it.

Other more creative versions end up being extensions of other conspiracy theories, such as the belief that Bill Gates is responsible for SARS-CoV-2 due to a larger plan to profit off a vaccine, or that 5G networks are the real cause of COVID-19 whether because it somehow weakens the immune system to make us more vulnerable to the virus or more directly along with the belief that SARS-CoV-2 doesn’t actually exist at all.

The bottom line is that objective evidence points away from any conspiracy theory offering the best explanation of the origins of SARS-CoV-2. But “conspiracy theorists gonna conspiracy theorize” and objective evidence isn’t going to easily stop them.

Those who view China as a political enemy that's not be trusted will have trouble letting go of the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 might have been made in the Wuhan lab. And those mistrustful of science and wary of new technology will continue to be drawn to the latest conspiracy theory tropes that paint scientists as “mad,” “evil,” or corrupt, whether related to vaccines, genetically modified organisms (GMO), 5G networks, or even a flat Earth.

And yet, what the COVID-19 crisis illustrates well is just how crucial science—and not conspiracy theorizing—is for learning about a new biological threat and how to best survive it.

For more about different beliefs and attitudes towards COVID-19, see these posts:

References

1. Andersen KG, Rambaut A, Lipkin WI, et al. The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2. Nature Medicine 2020; 26; April, 450-455.

2. Fisher M, Keil FC. The curse of expertise: When more knowledge leads to miscalibrated explanatory insight. Cognitive Science 2016; 40:1251-1269.

3. Paraskevis D, Kostaki EG, Magiokinis G, et al. Full-genome evolutionary analysis of the novel corona virus (2019-nCoV) rejects the hypothesis of emergence as a result of a recent recombination event. Infection, Genetics, and Evolution 2020; 79:104212.

4. Menachery VD, Yount BL, Debbink K, et al. A SARS-like cluster of circulating bat coronaviruses shows potential for human emergence. Nature Medicine 2015; 21:1508-1513.

5. Menachery VD, Dinnon III KH, Young BL, et al. Trypsin treatment unlocks barrier for zoonotic bat coronavirus infection. Journal of Virology 2020; 94:e01774-19.