Coronavirus: A preprint provides ammunition to conspiracy theories about virus origin

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A preprint by two Chinese authors has without a shred of evidence provided much ammunition to conspiracy theories that the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) might have come from a Chinese lab. Meanwhile, 27 scientists have in an open letter in The Lancet condemned conspiracy theories.

In a preprint that was posted on Research Gate (but now available only in the Wayback Machine), two researchers — Botao Xiao and Lei Xiao —from Chinese institutions have claimed without a shred of scientific evidence that the “killer coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan”. As expectedly, this has provided much ammunition to the conspiracy theory that is already circulating on the Internet.

The authors are from South China University of Technology in Guangzhou and Wuhan University of Science and Technology in Wuhan.

The preprint entitled “The possible origins of 2019-nCoV coronavirus” is a textbook case of how “evidence” is collected or presented to support confirmation bias of the researchers.

By definition, a preprint is one that is yet to be published in a scientific journal post peer-reviewing. Hence, any claims made in preprints should be considered with caution. But that has not stopped several newspapers from reporting the news four-five days ago based on claims made in the preprint.

Relying on circumstantial evidence

While the two authors fail to provide any evidence that the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) was created in the lab, they build their case based on mere assumptions. They begin by saying that bats carrying the novel coronavirus are originally found in Yunnan or Zhejiang province, which is more than 900 km from the seafood market. Hence, the chances of bats “flying to the market” are slim.

The bats were never sold in the market either, based on several testimonials, they say. They then talk of intermediate host but quickly add that “little proof has been reported” on this.

Therefore, the only possible pathway for the virus is, according to them, the Wuhan Center for Disease Control & Prevention. This Center which is only about 280 metres from the market and is also adjacent to the Union Hospital, where the doctors who first infected during the epidemic were working, is advanced as a possible source of the virus.

While they make a fleeting caution that “solid proofs are needed in future study”, they then quickly move on to question if the Wuhan Institute of Virolog, which is located about 12 km from the wet market, were the source of the virus. The only reason they doubt this Institute is the fact that the principal investigator had “participated in a project which generated a chimeric virus using the SARS-CoV reverse genetics system, and reported the potential for human emergence”.

Appeal by 27 scientists

Meanwhile, on February 19, a group of 27 public health scientists from eight countries have signed an open letter in The Lancet to “support scientists, public health and medical professionals of China combating COVID-19” and to condemn conspiracy theories surrounding the origin of the virus.

A petition has also been started on Change.org two days ago and over 2,100 have signed it already.

“We sign this statement in solidarity with all scientists and health professionals in China who continue to save lives and protect global health during the challenge of the COVID-19 outbreak. We are all in this together, with our Chinese counterparts in the forefront, against this new viral threat,” they write in the open letter.

“We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin. Scientists from multiple countries have published and analysed genomes of the causative agent, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), and they overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife,” they add.

They conclude by inviting others too to join them in supporting the scientists and professionals in China and sign the letter.

China slams media reports

On February 20, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang slammed a media report that the novel coronavirus was created in the lab. Such unfounded claims at a time when China is pulling out all the stops to combat the virus are “either full of ignorance or bear hostile intentions” he said.

“What we need is science, rationality [and] cooperation to defeat ignorance with science and shatter rumours with truth, and to counter prejudice with cooperation,” he noted.

WHO’s stand on virus origin

On February 19, at a press briefing, Richard Brennan, regional emergency director for WHO’s Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean said that there is little evidence that the novel coronavirus which causes COVID-19 disease was produced in a laboratory or as a biological weapon.

“COVID-19 is what’s called a coronavirus, it’s a class of viruses that are primarily what we call zoonotic, that they come from the animal kingdom,” he explained.

Published in The Hindu on February 20, 2020