COVID-19 Day 35: The Wuhan Accident


Since the WHO first announced COVID-19, it’s been commonly reported that the virus originated in batsThe official story from Chinese authorities is that the infection came from wild animals sold in a farmers market (“wet market”) in Wuhan. But as the accuracy of other “COVID-19 facts” from Chinese authorities has been found to be questionable, so too has the official story of the virus’ origins. 

There have been various “conspiracy theories” floating around the interwebs making claims that COVID-19 was a bioweapon engineered in China. Some pundits and politicians including US Senator Tom Cotton even retweeted them. I never finished my genetic engineering degree so I can only rely on peer-reviewed scientific journals to determine the veracity of such theories. 

In a paper published in Nature Medicine, a group of immunologists, microbiologists, and evolutionary biologists looked into the SARS-CoV-2 genome and came to the conclusion that the virus doesn’t appear to be optimized for human infection, calling into doubt that it had been bioengineered as a weapon. Its RNA most closely matches coronavirus found in Asian bats, but includes proteins more closely related to pangolins and snakes. This odd mixture of animal gene components is more indicative of a virus that evolved in the wild, through natural-selection than human engineering. 

That doesn’t mean the virus couldn’t be man-made, just that a man-made virus would be more streamlined; without random junk RNA that could hinder or disable it. Perhaps a better person to ask would be someone likely to commission a bioweapon? General Mark Milley, the chairman of the joint chief of staff, expressed doubts that SARS-CoV-2 was a Chinese bioweapon. One would presume our top general responsible for defending against a foreign bioweapon would have a vested interest in identifying one. 

What has been brought is light is the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 was released by accident. Two virology research facilities are located in Wuhan within 10 miles of the farmers market. Both labs were known to work with and study coronavirus, but neither lab is a government bioweapons facility. 

It is not at all surprising or suspicious that coronavirus would be studied at a virology lab in China. Coronavirus has been a focus of research throughout Asia after the devastating 2003 SARS pandemic (SARS1). Many labs around the world have been working on a coronavirus vaccine or researching treatments. This virus research was much more urgent in countries that experienced SARS1 firsthand.

Multiple sources have reported a story that a research student/intern at one of the Chinese labs, accidentally became infected with SARS-Cov-2 while working with the virus. She unintentionally infected her boyfriend who later visited the Wuhan farmers market and spread the virus to the general population.  

Virology labs do need to store and culture live coronavirus as part of their research. Another common feature in a research lab, are research students. As we all know, students are learning on the job, so it would not be unusual for them to make mistakes. And there is evidence that safety protocols in the Wuhan labs were lacking.

A US State Department cable leaked to the Washington Post, lends credence to the accidental release theory. A cable by sent by a US diplomat in 2018 voiced concerns about lax safety measures at the Wuhan Institute fo Virology, lack of tight safety measures ‘represented a risk of a new SARS-like pandemic.’ This lab was also the first to report that SARS-CoV-2 came from bats.

It’s worth reviewing the official theory: that bats are the original host of the virus, but that it first mutated in an intermediary animal before it could infect humans. Pangolins are a suspected intermediary animal and that caged pangolins or pangolin meat may have been the disease vector. Oddly pangolins were not listed on an inventory of animals sold at the Wuhan market, although illegal traders would certainly omit contraband from official documents.

This accidental release theory is just that, a theory. There has been no hard evidence put forward to support it. The supposed intern/student hasn’t been identified, nor has her boyfriend. Though it’s entirely possible that the Chinese authorities simply disappeared them.

Certainly, news of an accidental release of a deadly virus from one of China’s top research centers would be embarrassing for the intern’s supervisor, the lab manager, and the lab owners (all of whom would be members of the Chinese Communist Party). There would be a vested interest in covering-up such evidence. I’m not claiming that they did, just that there is plausible motivation.

Chinese authorities have a documented history of suppressing information that might embarrass them. They imprisoned the doctors who first reported a mysterious SARS-like epidemic in Wuhan. They denied that the virus could be spread from human-to-human contact. It would not surprise me in the least if they tried to hide the most embarrassing news, that the pandemic was started by a careless goof-up. 

Whether an accident in a lab or an accident in a market, doesn’t make much difference. We’re dealing with the epidemic with the same tools: quarantine, face masks, hand-sanitation, social distancing, etc. And sadly, the deaths and human toll are the same.



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