Are SARS and Covid-19 Biological Weapons? Conspiracy Theories, Debunked.

The world is currently in a state of chaos. International economies are in turmoil, reeling from the effects of a devastating global pandemic. Military tensions are brewing, and death seems to be constantly knocking at our doors. Emotions are running sky high and people are demanding answers—answers that conspiracy theories are providing.

The SARS outbreak in 2003 was shrouded with conspiracy theories that attempted to provide explanations for people’s suffering. The now occurring Covid-19 pandemic is no different. Both Coronaviruses have been fuelled with conspiracy theories regarding their nature and their true place of inception. Interestingly, the conspiracy theories behind Covid-19 run parallel to those put forth during the SARS epidemic—both Coronaviruses have been suspected of being biological weapons.

While experts in the scientific community resist such claims, some government leaders remain sceptical. So sceptical, that they have touted these conspiracy theories to the general public, despite a lack of evidence. Oftentimes, political agendas are at play, as countries navigate their way through the public health crisis.  

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It turns out that conspiracy theories during such times of uncertainty are fairly commonplace.

According to Daniel Jolley, a psychologist and conspiracy theory researcher, “Conspiracy theories bloom in periods of uncertainty and threat, where we seek to make sense of a chaotic world. They often provide a simple answer to a complex problem and blame a group of conspirators for a problem in society, which can make them very appealing”.

In other words, conspiracy theories function as a “self-soothing mechanism”.

What are the Conspiracy Theories Behind SARS?

When it comes to the question of nature versus nurture, conspiracy theories tend to partake in the latter. These theories hypothesise that SARS was not a natural phenomenon. Instead, it occurred as a result of artificial interference.

It all began when Sergei Kolesnikov, a Russian scientist and member of the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences, announced that SARS was a combination of measles and mumps. In his view, this could not have happened naturally. It would have to be produced under laboratory conditions. Nikolai Filatov, another Russian scientist and head of Moscow’s epidemiological services, lent support to this argument by suggesting that the SARS virus was likely man-made.

As a result, conspiracy theories that castigate SARS as a manufactured biological weapon spread like wildfire. For one, Richard Fisher, a senior fellow at a Washington-based think tank, believed that a bio-weapon link should remain in consideration. According to him, “While there is no reported evidence that SARS is indeed a weapon, there are plenty of ways that a real weapon with the properties of SARS could prove decisive in a military conflict”.

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Fisher believed that the low kill ratio of SARS—as more than 90% of infected individuals recovered from the virus—was what made it especially strategic for military use. It could cause widespread panic and trigger political instability. Fisher shared that a “seemingly ‘natural’ epidemic would lessen suspicion of the main ‘enemy state’ by the target country and its main allies”. “With that target government increasingly preoccupied by a major health crisis, it would then be distracted from other possible threats, thus increasing the chances an outside attack could succeed,” he added on.

For the most part, fingers seem to be pointed in two general directions when playing the blame game—at the U.S. and China.

Conspiracy Theory 1: The U.S. Leaked SARS as a Biological Weapon

The SARS virus. (Source)

In a book published in 2003, Tong Zeng, a Chinese lawyer and volunteer in a 1998 Chinese-American medical cooperation program, speculated that SARS might be a biological weapon developed and unleashed by the U.S. against China. The book detailed how thousands of DNA and blood samples were collected from mainland Chinese through joint research project facilitated in China. While these samples were sent back to the U.S. for analysis and research, he postulated that they could have been used in developing biological weapons targeted at the Chinese. Fascinatingly, these samples were retrieved from 22 Chinese provinces, all of which were hard hit by SARS during the epidemic. Provinces such as Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hainan, which were not included in the study, suffered considerably less severe repercussions during SARS.

Even so, Tong Zeng’s claims exacerbated those made by the two Russian scientists, which stirred controversy on China’s online platforms. Many Chinese became inclined to believe that SARS was indeed a biological weapon created by the U.S. to be used against China, which was perceived as potentially threatening. The initial difficulty in pinpointing the source of the SARS virus further fuelled such conspiracy theories.

Proponents of these theories suggest that SARS caused the greatest damage in mainland China, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong, all of which are populated with a Chinese majority. Countries such as the U.S. and Europe, on the other hand, were much less affected.

Debunked

Firstly, Tong Zeng clearly pointed out that his conjectures lacked any concrete proof to substantiate their validity. Therefore, his conspiracy theory cannot be scientifically proven and legitimised.

Secondly, as it turns out, independent scientific laboratories have concluded that the claims made by the Russian scientists—that SARS was made by artificially combining measles and mumps—were unfounded.

SARS is a Coronavirus while measles and mumps are Paramyxoviruses. Simply put, they belong to two different virus families. They have different structures and modes of infection. This means that SARS could not have been created by combining measles and mumps together as previously claimed. In this line of reasoning, it is not likely that the SARS Coronavirus was man-made, let alone purposefully manufactured as a biological weapon that could be leaked by the U.S.

Conspiracy Theory 2: China Leaked SARS From a Bio-Weapons Research Facility

A Chinese horseshoe bat mid-flight. (Source)

In an opinion piece released by China’s most well-known and exiled dissident, Wei Jingsheng toyed with the idea that “SARS emanated from China’s biological weapons research facilities”.

This theory rests upon the existence of an offensive biological weapon programme in China. As of 2003 when the conspiracy theory first surfaced, intelligence from the U.S. acknowledged that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) did seem to have an offensive program, despite its reduced capacity. While China’s Institute of Military Medicine had been primarily utilised for defensive research, other biotechnology facilities may have served both civilian and military purposes.

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It is said that China’s strategic planners were intrigued by the concept of “asymmetrical warfare”. It is a military tactic that allows a weaker party to gain a decisive victory over a stronger one—such as the U.S.—by strategically striking it where it is relatively weak. Perhaps a biological weapon was seen as a suitable tool to do so.

However, it remains unclear how the upper ranks of the PLA precisely thought and functioned. This leaves several possibilities open for grabs. “In the absence of clear knowledge of PLA doctrine in this area, one can presume that the PLA at a minimum maintains a stock of bioweapons for retaliation purposes,” Fisher commented.

Debunked

While the SARS Coronavirus is widely thought to have originated from China, there is little evidence to justify its leakage from a Chinese owned bio-weapons research facility.

Indeed, there was some initial confusion over the source of the virus. It was originally attributed to the masked palm civet in China. However, it was later more accurately traced to the Chinese Rufous Horseshoe Bat by Dr. Jianfeng He, the chief expert of the Guangdong provincial Center for Disease Control and director of the Guangdong Institute for Infectious Disease Control and Prevention. His findings were corroborated by many scientists, including a team of researchers from Australia, whose findings were published in Science in 2005.

It is likely that the virus jumped from bats to civets, which then spread to humans in what is known was the SARS epidemic. Hence, this discredits the claim that the SARS Coronavirus was man-made by the Chinese as a biological weapon in a research facility.

What are the Conspiracy Theories Behind Covid-19?

The conspiracy theories behind COVID-19 follow a similar thread to those behind SARS. They speculate that Covid-19 is a biological weapon created and unleashed by the same two countries: the U.S. and China.

Several countries have jumped on the bandwagon to propagate panic and sow distrust among other countries by revelling in such conspiracy theories.

Conspiracy Theory 1: The U.S. Created Covid-19 as a Biological Weapon

The SARS-CoV-2 virus. (Source)

In a tweet posted in March, Chinese government spokesman Lijian Zhao attempted to defect blame for the Coronavirus by pinning it on the U.S.. He tweeted, “It might be U.S. army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe(s) us an explanation!”

This is a sentiment shared by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has rejected the U.S.’s assistance to combat Covid-19 due to the conspiracy theory that the virus is manufactured by America. This comes as the country faces severe economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. This has restricted Iran from selling its crude oil to other countries and has prevented it from tapping into international financial markets. Both of which has crippled the Iranian economy.

“I do not know how real this accusation is but when it exists, who in their right mind would trust you to bring them medication?” Khamenei said. “Possibly your medicine is a way to spread the virus more,” he exclaimed.

Likewise, it seems like Russia is playing along with China and Iran. Its purpose? To destabilise the social stability of its rival countries. Russia has been found by the European Union (EU) to be actively participating in a “significant disinformation campaign” against the West. It was deemed to have done so by spreading that Covid-19 is a biological weapon of the U.S. on online platforms. Russia was said to be publishing such conspiracy theories in various languages to contradict and jeopardise the EU’s approach to tackling the Covid-19 situation.

Debunked

Spike proteins on the virus. (Source)

For starters, scientists and researchers have concluded that the RNA of the Covid-19 virus is very similar to those that circulate within the bat population. It is so similar that epidemiological information “implicates a bat-origin virus infecting unidentified animal species sold in China’s live-animal markets”. In essence, the Covid-19 Coronavirus shares a very similar origin to the SARS Coronavirus in that they have both been traced to bats, which is known as a natural reservoir of viruses.

More evidence points to a natural cause of the virus rather than a man-made one. The spike proteins found on the Covid-19 virus—that is responsible for latching onto their hosts and invading their immune systems—is extremely difficult to be manufactured, if at all, by humans. The more likely explanation for the virus would be a natural evolvement over a long period of time, not a product of human interference by the U.S.

Conspiracy Theory 2: Covid-19 Leaked from Laboratories in Wuhan, China

There are two scientific laboratories located within 10 miles of the wet market epicentre in Wuhan, where the pandemic was believed to have started: the Institute of Virology and the Wuhan Center for Disease Control. Both these laboratories where were believed to be involved in virology research, where tests on viruses were conducted. Richard Ebright, a professor at Rutgers University’s Waksman Institute of Microbiology, suggested that many of the scientists who worked in these laboratories only had “minimal protections” against infection.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology. (Source)

“Virus collection, culture, isolation, or animal infection at BSL-2 with a virus having the transmission characteristics of the outbreak virus would pose substantial risk of infection of a lab worker, and from the lab worker, the public,” he noted. He went on to express that existing evidence shows “a basis to rule out a lab construct, but no basis to rule out a lab accident.”

This is to say that the Coronavirus was not believed to be manufactured in a laboratory. Rather, it could have been researched on and unintentionally released in an accident.

In the UK, it is “no longer being discounted” that a leak from a nearby scientific laboratory could be responsible for the outbreak. A member of the UK government’s emergency committee of senior officials, Cobra, commented that “There is a credible alternative view [to the zoonotic theory] based on the nature of the virus.” “Perhaps it is no coincidence that there is that laboratory in Wuhan,” he added on.

President Donald Trump and some of his officials also proved extremely keen in entertaining such a theory. In fact, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been rather vocal with his claim that China had “perpetuated” the Covid-19 virus. According to him, “there is significant evidence that this (Covid-19) came from the laboratory”.

Elsewhere in India, similar sentiments were expressed. In a tweet, Manish Tewari, a senior Indian opposition leader, called the Coronavirus a “bio-weapon that went rogue or was made to go rogue”. He even went a step further to call it an “act of terror”.

Debunked

According to the American intelligence community, it is said that the Covid-19 virus that originated from Wuhan, China, is not believed to be artificially made or genetically modified. The laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology is in fact a joint project with the French government, and has no capability to design or manufacture Covid-19.

Moreover, Jonna Mazet, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Davis, who has previously conducted research in the Wuhan virology laboratory has spoken up to refute this theory. According to her, the Covid-19 pandemic is “highly unlikely a lab accident” due to several reasons.

Firstly, the laboratory samples studied in the Wuhan virology laboratory simply do not match that of the new Coronavirus.

Secondly, addressing the issue of laboratory safety posited by the conspiracy theories, the researcher was quick to highlight the sophisticated protective facilities and stringent measures that are present in the laboratory. Virus samples are kept frozen and disinfected in a specially designated area. Additionally, anti-contamination measures are put in place to ensure the safety of laboratory staff at all times.

How Has Social Media Facilitated These Conspiracy Theories?

Twitter has been found to play a very significant role in fuelling the spread of such conspiracy theories.

In a Twitter analysis conducted by Christopher Bouzy, the founder of Bot Sentinel, it was discovered that online bots and troll bots were generating a myriad of false information. The bulk of the information produced pointed to China for intentionally creating Covid-19 as a biological weapon.

While the origin of these bots cannot be confirmed, they are certainly instrumental in disseminating conspiracy theories regarding the pandemic. This feeds into the fear, anger, grievance, and insecurity of the masses. The dissemination of such conspiracy theories does little to stabilise societies to generate a cohesive and effective national response to the global crisis. If anything, it serves to erode the public’s trust in the government and their approach to tackling the pandemic. In the grander scheme of things, this promotes distrust between governments, which poses serious consequences. It can jeopardise the coordination of international efforts to contain a growing public health emergency, one that knows no boundaries.

Have These Conspiracy Theories Caused Any Damage?

Injuries sustained by the Chinese student in the London assault. (Source)

Yes, they have. These conspiracy theories have triggered a particularly strong anti-Chinese sentiment in many countries. As a result, racially charged attacks have been made on our fellow Singaporeans abroad.

In Melbourne, a Chinese Singaporean and Malaysian student were the targets of verbal abuse and physical assault. Their assailants were reported to have shouted “Coronavirus” at them, following which they were told to “go back to China”.

Another such incident was also reported in London, where a Chinese Singaporean student was attacked by a group of youths. Once again, his attackers labelled him “Coronavirus” before the assault began.

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