Nah, I’m just messin’ with you! I said no more Britney and I meant it.
I was standing on the roof at work the other day, drinking coffee with a workmate who was ventilating his favourite conspiracy theory: that Trump was right, the SARS-CoV-2 virus is a bioweapon hatched in a Wuhan lab and released on the world to bring down democracy.
This sort of provocative bullshit usually makes my coffee go cold, but showing restraint I kept drinking and asked for evidence. The chasms in his argument were self-evident, and he eventually simmered to a sulky “Well, you can’t trust China” stance which I think nobody disputes.
But the conspiracy theory remained lodged in my thoughts like a splinter, or maybe a spike protein, because the reality is we can’t trust any government. I mean, it’s not like Western governments don’t conduct ‘gain of function’ research — weaponising viruses to make them deadlier.
In 2015 a collaboration of scientists bioengineered a ‘chimeric’ coronavirus that could skip the intermediary animal vector. That study now carries an editorial note: “this article is being used as the basis for unverified theories that the novel coronavirus causing COVID-19 was engineered. There is no evidence that this is true; scientists believe that an animal is the most likely source of the coronavirus.”
I pay attention to riders these days. Language is important when you’re trying to dodge blame six months later. What that editorial note actually says is: “as-yet unverified” and “no evidence at this time” and “most likely, but we could be wrong“.
Because scientists get it wrong all the time.
In 2001 a major outbreak of foot-in-mouth leaked from a lab with the highest biosafety level rating (BSL-4) in the UK. The CDC in 2012 reported 11 laboratory-acquired infections across six years from BSL-3 labs. In June 2014, the CDC accientally exposed 62 workers to anthrax. That year, the US government suspended ‘gain of function’ research, only to resume it in 2017.
There are only fifteen BSL-4 labs in the world, one of them in Wuhan, where they carry out bat coronavirus research five hundred metres from the open-air Hunan seafood market.
As they say, accidents happen.
But it’s a quantum leap from “oops, we did it again” to allege China did this on purpose. In 2009 the H1N1 virus emerged in the US and spread to the world. The CDC estimate 151,700 – 575,400 people died in the first year of the virus, many in Asia. Did China respond by labelling it the “America Virus”? Did China close its borders to American travelers? Did the world isolate from America? Did Americans abroad get attacked in the street?
Until we see the evidence, this particular conspiracy theory is only good for one thing, and that’s identifying the xenophobes among us. China may have (oops!) released a deadly virus again due to sloppy lab practices, but the world has responded to China — again — with the same racist bullshit.
But (for the lulz) let’s take this conspiracy a step further.
A ‘handbrake’ on Chinese economic expansion is its aging population, a result of the one-child policy. The West faces a similar fate, but maybe not just yet. Solution? Astra-Zeneca. None of the vaccines have been properly tested, so give the one more likely to kill you to those aged 60+
I don’t actually believe that, but some people do. And who knows? We’re all moral relativists if push comes to shove.