Conspiracies, Coronavirus And Centuries Of Pandemics

Learn about the mysterious ‘bioweapons lab’ in Wuhan, and lesson from the First World War that applies to the current coronavirus outbreak...


Is coronavirus a bioweapon?

That’s one question doing the rounds on the internet at the moment.

And as well as plenty of online material about COVID-19, there is related information on disease and biowarfare more generally. 

This ranges from sensible historical observations, to interesting future possibilities, to downright crazy conspiracy theories.

An example of the former appears on the Royal Statistical Society’s website. In an article entitled ‘Heroic sacrifice or tragic mistake? Revisiting the Eyam plague, 350 years on’, Xavier Didelot writes in a section entitled ‘Plague in the past, present and future’ that:

“Perhaps most worryingly, plague is on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention list of pathogens that could be used for bioterrorism, due to its combination of high transmissibility and lethality. It was the first biological agent to be used as a deliberate weapon in recorded history, when the Mongol army hurled infected corpses during the 1346 siege of Caffa in Crimea, thus causing an epidemic among the Genoese defenders. More recently, plague was used during World War II by the Japanese army against the Chinese population, and was being developed as a bioweapon during the Cold War.”

So as Didelot points out, pathogens have been used as weapons in the past, and certainly could be again.

Yet, at the other end of the scale is an article and video report on entitled, ‘CORONAVIRUS A BIOWEAPON? WHITE HOUSE INVESTIGATES, AS MILITARY SETS UP QUARANTINE SITES ACROSS U.S.’

In the video, Spiro Skouras points to a series of coincidences surrounding the latest pandemic, foremost amongst them, the presence of a bioweapons lab in Wuhan - the Chinese city where coronavirus first emerged. 

He also mentions the White House’s announcement that it wants to look into the origins of the virus. The following quote from just below the video supports this section:

“ … if it is a conspiracy theory to consider the possibility that the Covid-19 [Coronavirus] may have been weaponized is so preposterous, then why has the White House requested the scientific community to investigate this possibility?”

And Skouras later says in the video:

“At this point I’d like to not only reiterate that nobody seems to know what’s actually happening, or at least they’re not telling us but the media is so quick to immediately discount, demonise and discredit anyone who steps out of line and looks at all of the possibilities … and given that a level-four bioweapons lab is located in the same city where this outbreak took place … it’s probably a good place to start.”

He’s certainly right that figuring out exactly what’s going on is difficult in the midst of a complex, evolving situation like the one we’re in.

And there are plenty of other, fanciful, possibilities one could consider that explain what’s actually happening.

The notion that pharmaceutical companies, who are blamed for ‘controlling the media’, might have invented coronavirus, and its victims, to sell vaccines, is just one of the many fanciful conspiracies emerging across the internet.

Then again, the virus might be a preparatory attack by malevolent aliens, if we’re following this line of thought. They could have seen movies like ‘Independence Day’ and ‘War of the Worlds’, realised that humans usually win against alien invaders and decided to distract us. We might be on the verge of an alien invasion right now, and all worried about the wrong thing.

Or, more politicised, earthly, possibilities might include Donald Trump’s suggestion at one point that the virus is a ‘hoax’ to stop him being re-elected, or that at least its seriousness is being exaggerated with that purpose in mind.

In comments he made at a rally in South Carolina on February 28, Trump said:

“They tried the impeachment hoax. That was on a perfect conversation. They tried anything. They tried it over and over. They’d been doing it since you got in. It’s all turning. They lost. It’s all turning. Think of it. Think of it. And this is their new hoax.”

To clarify, have pointed out that, in an article entitled ‘Trump and the ‘New Hoax’, the President responded to criticism about his use of the word “hoax” by saying that he didn’t mean the virus per se, but way the Democrats had criticised his administration’s response to it. 

In answer to whether or not he regretted use of the word “hoax”, Trump also said:

“No. No. No. Hoax referring to the action that they take to try and pin this on somebody because we’ve done such a good job. The hoax is on them not … I’m not talking about what’s happening here. I’m talking what they’re doing. That’s the hoax. That’s just a continuation of the hoax, whether it’s the impeachment hoax or the Russia, Russia, Russia hoax. This is what I’m talking about. Certainly not referring to this. How could anybody refer to this? This is very serious stuff … ”

President Trump listens to a briefing on the coronavirus in January
President Trump listening to a briefing about the virus in January

Though in fairness to Trump’s critics, he has been prone to engaging in conspiracy thinking with regards to another serious global issue: climate change.

In a 2012 tweet, the President said the Chinese made up global warming to make US manufactured goods less competitive.’s piece ‘FactChecking the First Debate’ does note that he later said he was joking in the tweet, though the article also points out that he has called climate change a ‘hoax’ on numerous other occasions. 

Getting back to coronavirus, if we are to take Spiro Skouras’ suggestion that we consider all the possibilities seriously, it seems pertinent not to discount all of these possible explanations, without examining their implausibility. 

For example, could it really be just a ‘coincidence’ that the bioweapons lab and the virus came from the same place?

Coincidences, after all, can be signs that something deeper is going on.

As the Forces Network pointed out in this article, it is certainly very spooky that one of the ships in the US cursed collier class disappeared, near the Bermuda Triangle, almost exactly 22 years before JFK was shot. Surely a sign that something sinister was going on?

Or perhaps the truth of the matter might be rather more mundane.

Writing for Vox, the title of Eliza Barclay’s article sums up the counterargument very nicely:

"The conspiracy theories about the origins of the coronavirus, debunked: There’s a rumor the coronavirus started in a Chinese lab. And a scientific consensus it didn’t."

Barclay states flatly that virologists have studied the genome of the virus and confirmed that it is natural, not man-made, and that the presence in Wuhan of a biolab – The Wuhan Institute of Virology – is just a coincidence.

In fact, it’s almost certainly not even a noteworthy coincidence. 

As Barclay and Vox go on to explain in the article and an accompanying video, the Chinese practice of keeping large numbers of animals in confined, unsanitary conditions in the middle of cities is conducive to developing diseases and passing them onto humans without the help of a nefarious, government biolab. 

The video in the report goes on to explain that the market in varied and wild exotic animals has been allowed to develop in China despite the danger to public health for political reasons.

There’s also a certain amount of common sense that should be applied here. 

Even without the reasons given in the Vox article, it’s easy to see that any government would struggle if faced with China’s challenge of modernising, within climate and environmental limits, whilst continuing to feed all 1.4 billion of its people.

And, of course, the fact that China’s economic development is happening in cities, and that they, China, and the region in general, have such high population densities, is another obvious factor. 

These factors are a far more believable explanation for the emergence of disease there than leaked or escaping government bioweapons.

It’s certainly an interesting factoid that the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the (likely) genesis point for the virus’ transition from animals to people are in the same city. 

And yet, the 1997 H5N1 avian flu outbreak, SARS and MERS, for example, didn’t originate in Wuhan, so they can’t be explained by their proximity to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. 

What should we make of these un-coincidences? 

Only that it makes sense that, with cities being centres of human activity, and animal captivity, that they are likely to be the places where animal-to-human diseases start and are easily spread to large numbers of people. 

Cities are also likely to be centres of research, including into virology.

A conspiracy isn’t necessary to explain the fact that several disease outbreaks started in cities that didn’t have the Wuhan Institute of Virology; and then that one eventually did break out in a place that did have the Wuhan Institute of Virology. 

As usual with conspiracies, it makes no sense to consider fanciful ideas when much simpler ones suffice to explain what is happening.

Having said all that, the possibility of coronavirus generating future conspiracies doesn’t seem quite as far-fetched.

Writing for ‘The Hill’, Grady Means explores this topic in ‘The coronavirus: Blueprint for bioterrorism’.

In the piece, Means also makes reference to Wuhan’s ‘bioweapons lab’, which the Washington Post has established is actually just a research facility in any case. (The article in which it addresses this issue is entitled, ‘Experts debunk fringe theory linking China’s coronavirus to weapons reasearch’).

Though Means’ assertion that terrorists might use the coronavirus outbreak as a lesson for how to conduct future attacks probably deserves to be taken seriously.

Particularly, one might add, here in the south of England where the Novichok attack in Salisbury is still fresh in the collective memory. 

Just as radiological weapons could be used to cause mass disruption by some terrorist organisation in future, it’s obvious ISIS or a group like it would use biological agents against the rest of us if they could.

But in the process of proving or debunking conspiracy theories - or of waging actual war on terrorist groups or ideological battles about globalisation in the midst of this outbreak - it's important not to forget the larger lesson:

That nature is perfectly capable of generating deadly pathogens on its own.

And in the light of the recently-past First World War centenary, it’s a lesson we should remember better than we do.

Like us, our ancestors from a century ago were also moving around the globe and, unwittingly, taking pathogens with them when they did so. 

The pathogen they carried were those that gave rise to the 1918 ‘Spanish flu’, a disease that flared up three times over the course of 1918 to 1919, finally burning itself out early in 1920.

Our ancestors, of course, were unwittingly spreading the illness as part of a mass mobilisation effort rather than being part of a modern globalisation network. (Though, another form of globalisation had developed before the First World War, something that the existence of widespread European empires naturally played a part in).

In their case, its possible as much as half the world’s population caught the virus.

And as ‘The Week’ explains, the pandemic they experienced spawned not just millions of victims, it also bequeathed on us today’s modern containment methods:

“The public health measures we see today across the world – isolating victims, banning public gatherings, limiting people’s movement – are one of the Spanish flu’s most enduring effects.”

The actual origins of the 1918 flu aren’t known, though the British training camp at Etaples in France and Camp Funston in Kansas are suspected origin points - (‘Spanish’ flu is a misnomer).

In both places, conditions like large numbers of people moving in and out of these sites, as well as proximity to disease-ridden animals, were present.

In ‘Pandemic 1918: The Story of the Deadliest Influenza in History’, Catherine Arnold relates the efforts of Dr Victor C Vaughan to limit the spread of the virus. Unfortunately, she says, quoting his memoirs, he wasn’t listened to: 

“ … his words and those of fellow medics fell on deaf ears: ‘The dangers in the mobilization procedures followed by us in the World War were pointed out to the proper authorities before there was any assembly, but the answer was: “The purpose of mobilization is to convert civilians into trained soldiers as quickly as possible and not to make a demonstration in preventive medicine.""

In fighting the ‘Great War for Civilisation’, the authorities Vaughan was trying to convince were well acquainted with the danger they thought the enemy posed. And 10 million people died during the war effort as man battled man to end the man-made danger of invading nation states.

The Spanish Flu, meanwhile, simmered in the background, then went on to claim the lives of possibly ten times that number. (Arnold puts the global death toll at 100 million; many other sources, amongst them the CDC, put it at 50 million, out of a total of 500 million infected, or 1/3 of the world population).

Once again, the moral of the story would appear to be that man-made weapons, conventional or biological, aren’t necessary for the emergence of a truly deadly pandemic.

Indeed, as well as the 1918 influenza outbreak, there have been several other pandemics of comparable scale. 

The HIV/AIDS pandemic has had an infection rate of about 75 million since it began in the 1980s, of which around 32 million people have died. Although it is global in its reach, African countries have suffered disproportionately from it, with one in 25 people there living with the virus, according to the World Health Organization. 

This has meant that HIV/AIDS has, of course, been far more deadly than any coronavirus like SARS, MERS or COVID-19 (so far). Though the use of ART (Anti-Retroviral Therapy) has begun turning it into more of a chronic condition that people are able to live with for decades, provided it is treated soon enough.

Meanwhile, smallpox, the World Health Organization reminds us, first broke out around 3,000 years ago in India or Egypt and has been one of the most devastating diseases ever. The mortality rate is around 30 percent.

Having said that, smallpox was a kind of accidental weapon taken to the Americas by European explorers, where it killed approximately 90 percent of the native American population. As Jared Diamond explains in 'Guns, Germs and Steel', historically, Eurasians happened to have more animals capable of domestication.

This, coupled with the wider nature of the Eurasian continent meant that climactic conditions tended to vary less than on longer continents like Africa and North and South America. Farming techniques and lifestyles therefore spread more easily, leading to centuries of people living side-by-side with their animals and the diseases they passed on. Over time, European and Asian immune systems adapted in ways that those of native Americans, for instance, could not. Hence the much higher death rates when diseases like smallpox were ferried across the Atlantic.

(As the world races to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, it's apt to remember that smallpox is the illness for which vaccines were first developed in 1798).

And finally, to return to the subject of the quote at the beginning of this article, the 'Black Death' that swept through Europe in the 1340s and 50s is regarded as the deadliest pandemic in history. 

According to History Today, it's thought that 80 percent of those infected with the plague during this period died, and that the death rate for Europe may have been as high as 60 percent of the entire population (50 out of 80 million.) Estimates for deaths caused worldwide vary between 75 and 200 million.

Returning to a satirical line of thought, it's highly unlikely any of these deadly pandemics originated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology either.

Cover image: Shutterstock 1643947495 by Andrii Vodolazhskyi