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Origins of the pandemic: the evidence for natural evolution of SARS-COV-2, and what you should do: Don’t run away. Make a stand and fight.

2020-04-16

There are many conspiracy theories about COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) and the virus that causes it, SARS-COV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2).  The sequence of the virus that erupted in Wuhan, China with the first known case November 17, 2019 was published by Chinese researchers in early January (5 genomes were sequenced by January 12).  Since then, a large number of sequences (3,965 in the latest report on March 27, with hundreds more every day) have been published for viruses recovered in other locations (particularly the US and Europe, but smaller recoveries in southeast Asia and Australia).  The numerous sequences are very closely related, but differences indicate that one variety spread from China eastwards to the western US (with an introduction into Washington State), and another spread west to Europe (with a separate introduction into Washington State, making two clusters in that state; and a second introduction into New York City).

Unlike many other viruses (such as influenza), the novel coronavirus has a correction mechanism that reduces natural variability.  It does this by fixing errors in the RNA chain (ribonucleic acid, of which there are 29,903 bases in this virus, each base being one of four types that make up an alphabet) that are introduced by a naturally sloppy duplication system unique to viruses.  This is good news for the prospect of a vaccine, because it makes the virus less of a moving target.  In comparison, the influenza virus has no correction mechanism and has eight or ten separate RNA chains that can recombine, or mix, with each other.  This makes it possible for influenza virus to vary so much that a yearly new vaccine is required to establish immunity.

The virus is closely related to a bat virus– but there is at least 92% whole-genome identity with a pangolin virus.  Researchers have found that bats naturally harbor many different viruses, including coronaviruses, without apparently getting sick.  A laboratory in Wuhan has been studying the natural reservoirs in bats since the original SARS-COV-1 outbreak in 2002-4.  This fact has led some conspiracy theorists to blame the Wuhan lab for the outbreak– either by synthesizing a new genome or by accidentally releasing the new virus and introducing it into a Wuhan “wet market” (a place where many different varieties of live animals are held and custom-slaughtered individually for human consumption).  Both theories are at least theoretically possible but extremely unlikely for several reasons.

The first reason is that the Chinese government conducts research into these viruses for prevention rather than as a mechanism for bio-terrorism.  To claim that the virus was intentionally introduced would imply that the Chinese intended to slaughter their own citizens first and destroy their own economy, an idea which is akin to national suicide.  The Chinese could not have anticipated that the US would fail to protect their own citizens by effectively quarantining international travelers– this fact has resulted in US citizens (China’s richest customer base) being the most affected by a worldwide pandemic of unprecedented proportions.

The second reason is that an accident at the Wuhan laboratory that resulted in the release of the virus would have spread differently.  This idea is more tenable but still unlikely.  It would have involved a single person who then went on to a wet market (hardly a popular place for a person interested in science and not traditional varietal animal consumption) and gave the virus to a bat, which then gave it to one or two other people, who spread it around.  Why would “a Chinese intern” (as the theory goes) have gotten infected, then headed to a wet market instead of going home and giving it to her close relatives?

The third reason is that the coronavirus is not a particularly effective killer, although it is a supremely effective spreader.  To be a good bio-terror weapon, a virus needs to be a good, rapid killer that doesn’t spread easily.  If it doesn’t kill quickly, it won’t be much use on the battlefield.  If it spreads easily, it will infect your own troops as well as the enemy.  A virus that leaves over half of the enemy unaffected, while only killing less than four percent of them, doesn’t sound like a very good weapon.

The final reason that this variety of conspiracy theory surrounding the virus is unlikely is the sort of people who are spreading the theory around.  They seem to have xenophobia (fear of outsiders) as a political motive for engaging in this sort of thinking.  The motives of people who spread conspiracy theories are, at base, highly paranoid and suspicious.  They naturally believe this sort of thing because it fits into their world-view (Weltanschauung, in German, or “world-onlook”) which is that “the whole world is out to get me, in particular, because they all hate me, in particular”.  People with this Weltanschauung are also highly narcissistic: they believe that the whole world revolves around them, and everything that happens is directed at them by a unified outside force which either seeks to build them up or destroy them.

Narcissism of this type is particularly unrealistic.  The whole world in general doesn’t even know that you in particular exist, and that tiny minority who does know of you is hardly unified in their appreciation of your special gifts or hatred and jealousy of your unique qualities.  You aren’t unique, and you don’t have special gifts (or do you?). Certain people, world-famous people, are especially prone to this type of thinking because a much larger proportion of the world does know who they are.  But, to [redacted]’s eternal chagrin and disappointment, Barack Obama (a person who is much less concerned about how he appears to others, and who is much less attention-seeking) has twice as many followers on Twitter.  What’s worse, former President Obama really cares about people in general and has a highly developed ethical sense (qualities that [redacted] completely lacks).

So I am skeptical of this particular variety of conspiracy theory.  It may turn out that this virus was accidentally released from a virological laboratory in Wuhan, China– but that doesn’t make any difference to the millions of people who have already been infected.  It’s still a naturally derived virus according to the expert virologists, and it’s still a newly evolved “zombie” that takes over your body– for a while, perhaps forever.  You can’t run away from it, no matter where it came from.  The only thing you can do is stand and fight.

 

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