Debunking the conspiracy theory of SARS-Cov-2 being a bioweapon and discussing its xenophobic consequences

By Divya Venkataraman and Angela Zhang

On March 16th, a mass shooting took place at several spas in Atlanta Georgia. As six of the eight victims were Asian women, this tragic event is a clear reflection of the anti-Asian sentiment that plagues the United States. Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a 150% increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI). This growing racism demonstrates the xenophobic impact of the coronavirus’s Chinese origins, which has also contributed to the rise of many conspiracy theories. Among these, one of the most prominent theories is that the coronavirus was engineered by scientists as a biological weapon

According to the WHO, bioweapons are “microorganisms like virus, bacteria, fungi, or other toxins that are produced and released deliberately to cause disease and death in humans, animals or plants.” Besides the racism that fuels it, there are many other factors that have caused the covid-beoweapon theory, including international relations and the scientific uncertainty surrounding covid’s origins. Thus, in order to thoroughly discuss the theory’s validity, the different perspectives and arguments that relate it must be examined. 

The Science Behind the Conspiracy Theory

Although people may believe that the question of SARS-Cov-2’s origins has been long resolved, scientists are still investigating the unanswered questions that remain. Most recently in February of 2021, a team of experts from the World Health Organization visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). Kyle Jones, a biology teacher at MVHS, agrees that further investigation is necessary.

“It’s not conclusive, because we still need to do more research,” Jones said. “Like we haven’t gotten to the bottom of it, we actually don’t know exactly where it came from. So there’s still a lot of [uncertainty], the World Health Organization is still doing an investigation.”

In May 2020, a group of four Chinese virologists released a paper classifying SARS-Cov-2 as “an unrestricted bioweapon,” resulting in the very pandemic that has impacted all our lives, also considered  “unrestricted biowarfare.” Scientists claimed to have used in-depth analyses of the available data and literature to prove that SARS-Cov-2 was engineered in a lab, rather than created naturally.

To begin with, scientists accused others from labs all around the world of creating fake SARS-Cov-2 genetic sequences from bats and other animals, and uploading these fake sequences into GenBank, a genetic data bank. They claim that this is in order to mask the true origins of SARS-Cov-2, something that could be clarified by the “real” genetic sequences of SARS-Cov-2, rather than the animal-based ones. If this claim were to be true, most research on SARS-Cov-2, including its origins, would be falsified due to the use of inaccurate and frauded genetic sequences, the first piece of evidence in these scientists’ claim.

Additionally, they claim that the SARS-Cov-2 we know didn’t originate from the original bat coronavirus, RaTG13, as proven in “A pneumonia outbreak associated with a new coronavirus of probable bat origin,” one of the most cited SARS-Cov-2 articles. This theory would prove that SARS-Cov-2 is naturally-occuring. Instead, the scientists say that similarities were found not between SARS-Cov-2 and RaTG13, but rather two other bat coronaviruses, ZC45 and ZXC21. These were both discovered and characterized by military research laboratories under the control of the CCP government, furthering their claim that SARS-Cov-2 was also engineered in one of these research laboratories. In fact, they found the RaTG13 connection to be suspicious on a few other accounts as well, claiming that the actual sequencing of the protein is outdated, and has been put off for far too long.

However, these four scientists are not the only one who claim that SARS-Cov-2 could have been engineered in a lab. In fact, Nikolai Petrovsky, a professor at Flinders University and founder and chairman of Vaxine, devoted to developing immunizations for infectious diseases, made an interesting revelation after his team ran computer modeling studies of the viral sequence, the first step needed in order to produce a vaccine.

Petrovsky and his team found out that the spike proteins decorating SARS-Cov-2 were bound more tightly to their human cell receptor, a protein called ACE2, than the target receptors on any other species evaluated. Ultimately, this meant that SARS-Cov-2 had adapted very well to its human host, something that is highly unusual for a newly emerging pathogen, causing speculation of SARS-Cov-2 being man-made to attack humans at a higher rate than it would if naturally-occuring.

Both these studies among many more ultimately highlight the genetic sequences and physiology of the virus, pointing towards SARS-Cov-2 originating from a laboratory setting. But this brings up the question: Why would scientists engineer a bioweapon like SARS-Cov-2 to terrorize the human race?

The Politics Behind the Conspiracy

Because cases of SARs-CoV-2 first appeared in China, it comes as no surprise that some of the most prominent bioweapon conspiracy theories are centered around China. Dr. Jaime Sepulveda, executive director of UCSF Institute for Global Health Sciences and head of UCSF’s Epidemiology department, believes that there were many factors contributing to the rise of the coronavirus-bioweapon theory. 

“I think it has a combination of factors. One is sheer ignorance. Ignorance is a melting pot for all kinds of crazy ideas,” Dr. Sepulveda said.

MVHS sophomore Angelica Wang shared that her mother, after being exposed to similar forms of media, was swayed to believe conspiracy theories. 

“My own mom is a complete conspiracy theorist about this,” Wang said. “she was saying that it was a bioweapon from China [related to the] Communist party. She’ll find [posts] on Twitter and the sources are really questionable.”

The Wuhan Institute of Virology, after being speculated of having relations with the Chinese bioweapon research program, attracted global attention, especially due to its location at the heart of the initial outbreak. Former virologist Li Meng Yan has made strong claims on coronavirus’ militarized origins in relation to the WIV. According to Yan, SARs-CoV-2 was developed as “a laboratory product created by using bat coronaviruses ZC45 and/or ZXC21 as a template and/or backbone.” She goes even further to accuse scientists around the globe of planting fake genetic sequences to hide its true origins. 

Meanwhile, Chinese citizens and government officials have claimed that SARS-Cov-2 was transmitted by the United States government because of their biological warfare conspiracy against China. The claim is based on xenophobia between China and the United States, stating that “since the early nineteenth century, China has been humiliated by Western powers through their imperialist and colonizing endeavours.” They claim that the timing of the pandemic and the many conflicts between the two countries, including the China–US trade war, is too much of a coincidence to not be something more.

Although these theories have been made widely popular by the media, the lack of evidence behind the accusations has led the scientific community to ultimately disregard these claims. However, many still do believe these theories despite its lack of scientific evidence, and Dr. Sepulveda shares a possible reason for why. 

“Already, the US and China are in a very difficult trade relation in a very difficult military tension,” Dr. Sepulveda said. “And if you add the maternal blaming, and the conspiracy theory, it doesn’t help anyone… [instead, it makes them more] skeptical.”

Mr. Jones agrees, adding that the political implications of this conspiracy theory can be detrimental to society.

“Anytime you politicize something scientific at its heart, you ruin the scientific process, and you make getting to the actual truth very difficult,” Jones said. “Now the repercussions for attempting to get to the truth are societal, [and] you get labeled as one thing or another.”

Debunking the Conspiracy Theory

Although many believe this conspiracy theory from a political standpoint, more and more scientific evidence points towards this conspiracy theory being completely false. It has been proven time and time again that SARS-Cov-2 is not engineered in any lab, whether located in China or in the United States, and is naturally-occuring instead. 

“We’ll probably never be 100% certain, virologist Dr Megan Steain, lecturer in infectious diseases & immunology at the University of Sydney, tells MedicalRepublic. “But I’d say we’re pretty confident – 95-to-98% confident – that this is naturally occurring.”

In fact, researchers have disproven these conspiracy theorists’ original claim that the SARS-Cov-2 genetic sequences are faked since the genome has been sequenced by various labs all over the world. Because of the many scientists working to sequence SARS-Cov-2 individually, there is no chance of faking the results collectively, proving the data to be accurate.

Additionally, researchers have also disputed any and all claims against the correlation between SARS-Cov-2 and the RaTG13 virus in bats. Because the RaTG13 virus has been proven to exist in nature, according to the most recent genetic sequence, SARS-Cov-2 must have similarly occurred naturally.

Last but definitely not least, scientists have also managed to disprove the evidence suggesting that SARS-Cov-2 must have been engineered in a lab by acknowledging that a human cell receptor, ACE2, found on SARS-Cov-2, is highly unusual to exist in a naturally-occuring virus. Although it may seem unusual for a naturally-occuring virus to have such a receptor, mutations are a very common occurrence in naturally-occurring viruses. This could easily be one of those cases. Scientists have managed to prove that computer modeling systems would never suggest to use the sequence that SARS-CoV-2 actually uses, since no system to this day is so technologically advanced that it can predict that SARS-CoV-2 would bind to these human receptors as well as it actually does. 

Given all the evidence contradicting the theory, most scientists do not believe the conspiracy of SARS-Cov-2 being a bioweapon. In fact, more studies have gone as far to say that SARS-Cov-2 does not have any telltale signs of being engineered in a lab at all, with random errors and mutations being a frequent occurrence as the virus replicates. Yet even with all this evidence against the conspiracy, many still are coaxed into believing it, especially with all the intelligent and articulate propaganda crafted for that exact purpose. Hence, it becomes even more important for us to fight against these conspiracy theories, and Dr. Sepulveda shares the same sentiments.

“It’s unfortunate that these conspiracy theories are fomented, and being amplified,” Dr. Sepulveda said. “[All because of] population groups that have little or no education.”

AAPI Xenophobia

When analyzing the coronavirus bioweapon theory, it is extremely important to recognize the clear discrimination and xenophobia that is both a cause and consequence of the theory. Although some of the scientific and political speculations surrounding covid’s militaristic origins may not have necessarily stemmed from racism, there is no doubt that many of these conspiracy theories have taken a xenophobic turn. 

To some, the bioweapon theory seems to directly blame the Chinese government for the spread of SARS-Cov-2, even though there were many factors outside of just one country that led to the catastrophic pandemic. However, this mindset has easily led to the targeting of the Asian population, which was brought to light by current events. Additionally, Dr. Sepulveda cited politics as one of the key causes of the spread in coronavirus conspiracy theories and anti-Asian hate. 

“There is also an element of political blame,” Dr. Sepulveda said. “Remember, [Trump] was blaming China calling the coronavirus, the China virus.”

According to ABC News, a study conducted at UCSF drew empiric parallels between Trump’s remarks and the rise in hate crimes. “The study indicated a difference in anti-Asian sentiment when using neutral hashtags such as #COVID-19 versus racist hashtags like #Chinesevirus — 20% of the hashtags associated with #COVID-19 demonstrated anti-Asian sentiment, compared to 50% of hashtags with #Chinesevirus.” 

In order to combat decades of systemic oppression against the AAPI community, xenophobic conspiracy theories must be debunked through increased education and collaboration. As MVHS has a large Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) population, it is especially important for each person to be mindful of such theories to stop the spread of false and hateful information.

Looking forward

On the other hand, preventing the formation of hateful conspiracy theories is a challenging task that may never be truly accomplished. In line with this, Wang believes that conspiracy theories may be somewhat inevitable.

“It’s kind of hard [to solve] because people who believe all this can’t really [break out of their mindset],” Wang said. “There’s nothing that can change [my mom’s] mind at this point.”

However, there are still steps people can take to stop the spread of false rumors. The first solution that Mr. Jones brought up was to increase open-mindedness within ourselves and others. 

“And that’s a part of human nature that I think is fixable,” Jones said. “If people are aware of it, more open to learning more, and not so obsessed [with] something that they actually really haven’t done a lot of research on, [we can have more honest conversations].”

As a leader in public health, Dr. Sepulveda also provided valuable insight on solutions to stop the rampant spread of conspiracy theories.

“You can only combat misinformation with good information,” Dr. Sepulveda said. “It is not through confrontation, it has to do with persuasion…. Don’t take an attitude of superiority.”

Looking forward, the community as a whole must strive to promote the truth to prevent conspiracy theories such as the coronavirus-bioweapon one from blowing up. Only then will the world truly be able to focus on stopping hate against others and promoting true scientific discovery. 

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