No, the Coronavirus Is Not a Biological Weapon, But It Doesn't Need To Be One
A series of articles and videos have circulated online in the past few weeks claiming that the Coronavirus is not a naturally-occurring virus but is in fact a biological weapon. In the articles that circulate in the U.S. it is generally described as a Chinese biological weapon which was released either accidentally or on purpose. The virus’ high rate of transmission and lethality is typically cited as evidence, alongside a series of claims based on biological research on the virus and on related viruses.
These claims have been generally dismissed by scientists and mainstream media sources as crackpot theories, but generally without engaging seriously with what’s being claimed. Mainstream sources will dismiss as completely ridiculous the idea that a country would develop such a weapon, or that it could potentially be used against or tested upon the population of that country.
While there is no credible evidence that the Coronavirus is a biological weapon, we should not dismiss these ideas without investigating them thoroughly. Governments around the world have tested all sorts of weapons, including biological weapons, on their own citizens and on the citizens of other countries. They’ve also been willing to lie about it, often for decades.
For instance, the French government denied for decades that nuclear tests they carried out in the 1960’s and 70’s had irradiated huge parts of French Polynesia, causing a massive increase in the cancer rate. Likewise, U.S. nuclear testing in the Southwest, mainly in Nevada, irradiated huge parts of the country and likely contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. The U.S. government also used the herbicide Agent Orange extensively during the Vietnam war, poisoning millions of Vietnamese civilians and hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops.
More recently, during the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq the U.S. military extensively used tank and artillery shells filled with depleted uranium which have caused an epidemic of terrible birth defects in Iraq. More broadly, the U.S. maintained a large biological weapons program for many years, starting after World War II, which was officially dismantled under Nixon. The CIA even once seriously explored the possibility of using LSD as a weapon, and conducted an extensive series of tests on soldiers.
The U.S. and other governments around the world historically have been willing to kill or wound thousands or millions of civilians as part of their wars of loot and plunder. In this context, an abrupt or outright dismissal of the “bio-weapon theory” for the Coronavirus without investigation or explanation is not rational or “common sense.” Instead, it reflects a real unwillingness to deal with just how reactionary and viciously oppressive imperialist countries like the U.S., China, Russia, France, and so on really are. In their struggle to control as much of the world as possible they are willing to do almost anything, including literally building Doomsday machines capable of wiping out human society.
So it isn’t outside the realm of possibility that these people could contemplate, build, and then test a biological weapon like the Coronavirus. However, as of yet no credible evidence has emerged that points to the virus being a weapon, and in fact a good deal of scientific evidence indicates that the virus is of natural origin. The evidence that is typically cited to support claims that the Coronavirus is a bioweapon is usually produced by misreading or misunderstanding biological research papers and filling in some gaps with speculation and hearsay.
One example of this is a theory circulated by the libertarian finance blog ZeroHedge. The post is based on a twitter thread posted by a capitalist and cryptocurrency investor named Scott Burke. It presents a series of claims and pieces of circumstantial evidence which together seem to indicate that the Coronavirus is a biological weapon which was produced at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China. It claims that by hybridizing the virus that caused SARS with HIV a highly infectious virus was produced which causes severe respiratory symptoms. These claims are based on a few scientific papers, including one on research done at the Wuhan virology lab.
The first is a draft paper published in in January 2020 which claimed to show that there were “uncanny similarities” between HIV and the new Coronavirus which the authors said were “unlikely to arise fortuitously” (meaning by chance or accident). This was a deeply misleading claim. The similarities that they found between HIV and the Coronavirus are also shared with a large number of other viruses, including other Coronaviruses which infect bats. So while these things are shared between HIV and the Coronavirus, the similarities exist because these things are all viruses, not because the new Coronavirus was genetically engineered or combined with HIV.
The title of the paper, however, caused it to be rapidly shared on social media and reported on widely in the media. It seems like this was the authors goal: in publishing a paper with a provocative title they hoped to gain some temporary fame. This paper has since been retracted by the authors after receiving criticism, both based on the misleading title and claims as well as the methodology they used. Almost two months later the authors have yet to post an updated draft.
Nonetheless, in the ZeroHedge bioweapon article this retraction is mentioned but brushed off as a possible cover-up. The major scientific flaws in the paper are not discussed seriously, and the paper is taken as evidence that the Coronavirus is not a naturally-occurring virus but instead some sort of genetically-engineered hybrid.
The ZeroHedge article also cites a second paper published in 2008 in the Journal of Virology. ZeroHedge’s claim is that in this study the authors combined the SARS virus with HIV to produce a new, hybrid virus, and that this virus is the new Coronavirus causing the current pandemic. The 2020 study claiming to show “uncanny similarity” with HIV is claimed to show that this is what happened. The problem for the bioweapon theory is that the authors simply did not do what is claimed.
In the 2008 study, which was carried out at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the researchers studied how the virus which caused SARS entered and infected human cells. The virus that caused the SARS outbreak in 2002 and 2003 is a Coronavirus; it is closely related to the Coronavirus which is causing the current pandemic. In fact, these two viruses are so closely related that the technical name for the current virus is SARS-CoV-2, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2, reflecting the fact that the new Coronavirus is thought to be a strain of the same virus which caused the 2002-2003 outbreak.
Both of these viruses are part of a larger group of viruses called coronaviruses. Only a subset of these viruses can infect humans, and some can only infect other animals like bats or chickens. The authors of the 2008 study wanted to figure out why the SARS virus was able to infect humans while other closely related Coronaviruses were not. To test this, they used a few standard laboratory techniques to create several different versions of the protein that the virus uses to hook on to and enter a cell. These distinctive-looking proteins cover the outside of Coronavirus particles, and their crown-like shape is what gives the virus its name, from corona, the Latin word for crown.
This colorized image shows the Coronavirus’ distinctive crown-shaped surface proteins.
These surface proteins have a distinctive shape which latches on to other surface proteins on human cells. The attachment process is key for the virus because if it can’t effectively attach itself to the outside of a cell it won’t be able to infect the cell and then reproduce itself.
The researchers in the 2008 paper took these surface proteins and combined them in the lab with HIV viral particles which had had their own surface proteins removed. This then let them test how these proteins bound to cells, to let them determine exactly which parts of the protein were responsible for allowing the SARS virus to infect humans.
In the ZeroHedge post they say the authors of this paper “created a pseudovirus where they essentially put a SARS-like CoV in a HIV envelope.” This is somewhat accurate: they did take parts from several viruses closely related to the Coronavirus and combine them with parts of the HIV virus for testing. But what the authors of this bioweapon theory failed to understand is that the combined virus-like thing they produced (technically called a “pseudovirus”) was not a virus in the normal sense.
The pseudovirus they produced was not capable of independently infecting cells and reproducing itself. It was produced by, more or less, sticking different viral “parts” together: the surface proteins from the SARS virus with the body of HIV. But the researchers did not create an engineered viral genome that could produce more such pseudoviruses, so the pseudovirus lacked any ability to independently infect cells and reproduce itself. For this reason, even if it were released from the lab there would be no risk of it starting a global pandemic.
The pseudovirus was kind of like a gun loaded with blanks: you can pull the trigger and it will make noise but you can’t shoot anyone with it. Furthermore, the new Coronavirus doesn’t look anything like the result of such an experiment. In short, what is actually described in the 2008 paper is very far from what is described in the ZeroHedge bioweapon theory.
These two papers are the two key pieces of evidence that the author uses to support the theory. Given that one of the papers has since been retracted and the other has been completely misunderstood, there is no scientific evidence to support the bioweapon theory, and there is a very large amount of evidence, collected all around the world, which indicates that the Coronavirus is a naturally-occurring virus.
The ZeroHedge post in and of itself is not special or unique. There are a whole variety of similar theories out there. Aside from the fact that is has been spread fairly widely, the reason we have taken the time to specifically debunk this one here is that it is representative of how these kinds of theories work in general.
The author of the post makes sweeping and extraordinary claims about the Coronavirus, claims which really require some serious evidence for them to be taken seriously. To support the claims a few research papers are cited as supporting evidence, but the author of the post himself has an extremely shallow and superficial understanding of biology. He quite literally lacks the basic knowledge to understand what it is he is reading, so he claims that the researchers did things which they did not do.
Nonetheless, the fact that he’s citing the papers adds a certain air of scientific validity to his claims, despite the fact that the evidence doesn’t support his conclusions. Others who read the post can be bamboozled by this air of ‘sciencey-ness’ and think “well, if it’s in those papers it must be true.” Then if they try to read the papers themselves they’ll likely be intimidated because biology research papers are written in dense, jargon-heavy language that is difficult to read for those who have not studied it.
The current Coronavirus pandemic is a massive public health crisis which is straining hospitals around the world to their breaking point and plunging the economy into a depression. It is a major event for the people of the whole world, and it will be a huge factor in determining how the political and economic situation changes over the next few years.
There has not been a comparable pandemic since the influenza pandemic in 1918, which swept around the world, killing tens of millions of people and upending life for hundreds of millions more. This was over a hundred years ago, so the societal memory of what it was like to deal with and struggle against that pandemic has been in large part lost. We learn about the 1918 flu in school or perhaps hear secondhand stories, but being confronted with a similar situation ourselves, right now, in our lifetimes is something quite different.
In this unfamiliar scenario a lot of people will be looking for answers to help explain what’s going on. Theories that the Coronavirus was engineered as a biological weapon can provide an aspect of relief to people, by partially explaining the situation and at least granting the impression that someone is “in control” of developments, even if they are in control for malevolent ends.
The reality is, in some ways, more grim. The reality is that no one is in control. We live in a society where things are not organized according to rational decisions made by people, but by the blind logic of profit maximization. Under capitalism this is the fundamental organizing principle of every major institution in our society, from the healthcare system and the schools, to factories and workplaces, and to the police, the jails, and the army.
This is precisely the reason that the Coronavirus became such a disaster here in the U.S. – we don’t have a medical system which is run as a medical system, rationally planned to anticipate and meet needs. Instead, we have a healthcare system which is built for profit, which hugely compromises its ability to provide basic healthcare.
In this situation a lot of people, including powerful people like politicians, media figures, and big capitalists, are advancing theories that try to explain away aspects of the present crisis as conspiracies of one sort or another. In China the ruling class has at times endorsed conspiracy theories about the origin of the Coronavirus to distract from the clear issues that emerged in how they handled it. Here in the U.S. President Trump has spread misinformation about it too. He’s claimed that a vaccine is right around the corner, when in reality it is more than a year away, and that warm weather will stop the virus despite no evidence that this is the case. Even the former President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called the Coronavirus a biological weapon in a tweet:
It is clear to the world that the mutated coronavirus was produced in lab, manufactured by the warfare stock houses of biological war belonging to world powers,& that it constitutes a threat on humanity more destructive than the other weapons that target humanity.@antonioguterres pic.twitter.com/lLLzvdMAGo— Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (@Ahmadinejad1956) March 9, 2020
It’s certainly possible that the world’s so-called “great powers” could try to develop something like this and then try to unleash it on their rivals. Given all the terrible and reactionary things that the U.S. government has done it wouldn’t be particularly surprising if they had created the Coronavirus in a crazy attempt at biological warfare against China. But there’s no credible evidence that this is what happened with the Coronavirus. All indications are that it is a naturally-occurring virus which previously infected bats that was able to make the jump to infect humans. So these conspiracy-theories ultimately tell us more about those who are sharing them than about the Coronavirus itself.