How did the Coronavirus Pandemic Begin? Conspiracy Theories and Alternative Explanations

5th May 2020

The global devastation caused by the Coronavirus pandemic has prompted a deluge of questions about how exactly we got here. People have criticized lethargic governmental responses, the WHO’s malpractice, the utility of globalized supply chains, among many other things. But perhaps the most pertinent of these questions is the following: How did COVID19 first make the jump to humans? 

The inconsistencies surrounding the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) official explanation to this question, paired with their opposition to allowing any sort of international investigation into the virus’ origins, have opened the door to alternative theories. Some are plausible, some are compelling, and others are dangerously delusional. And the line that separates these categories can be difficult to locate. Thus, it’s essential to unpack the claims made in these theories, and determine how likely they are to be true based on all the available evidence. Here I will deal with the most popular ones: 

 

  • The virus came from the Wuhan seafood market

 

This theory is, officially, the working explanation for where COVID19 came from. The Chinese government provided this explanation publicly, soon after reporting the Wuhan outbreak to the WHO on December 31st, and subsequently shuttered the market. 

These sorts of markets, generically called “wet markets”, where exotic animals are sold in unsanitary and cramped conditions, have been a regular source of outbreaks in the past. The first SARS coronavirus, discovered in 2003, was thought to have come from a wet market near Guangdong, China. Many of the rare cases of H5N1 in humans, or bird flu, which has a mortality rate of about 60%, can be traced back to Asian wet markets. Thus, intuitively, a wet market would seem like a safe bet for the source of a novel coronavirus.

But for COVID19, there are legitimate questions about whether it really came from the wet market in Wuhan, as the Chinese government claims it did. In addition to the more general reasons to doubt the official statements of the CCP, facts such as that the first known patient had no connection to the market, and that bats – the animal thought to be the original carrier of COVID19 – were not sold there, have added to the uncertainty surrounding this official story. 

Another point of skepticism is how the wet market explanation first came about. Emily de La Bruyere, co-founder of the independent consulting group Horizon Advisory, aptly noted how curiously uncharacteristic it was for the CCP to publicly assign blame to the wet market so suddenly. It was only days after the Chinese first notified the WHO of the outbreak in Wuhan when they publicly identified the wet market as the source. Quickly shutting this market down was certainly a prudent decision – whether the virus originated there or not, we know it became a hotspot for transmission. But it seems unlikely that the CCP could be so confident that this market was the source of the virus at that stage, just days after they reported the outbreak. And even if they did honestly come to that conclusion, perhaps because they knew about the outbreak earlier than when they reported it, precedent suggests that they wouldn’t be so forthcoming. The CCP puts a great deal of time and effort into protecting themselves from any sort of international embarrassment, and admitting that another novel coronavirus came from a Chinese wet market would seem like something they’d do everything in their power to avoid – that is, unless the real explanation were far more embarrassing. 

While there are more than a few serious problems with this theory, it could still plausibly be the truth, and shouldn’t be considered conspiratorial. 

 

  • The virus was caused by Chinese-built 5G networks 

 

While the proponents of this theory can be found all over the world (see American actors John Cusack and Woody Harrelson), it has largely been confined to Western Europe. Yet it has still managed to be the catalyst for real world acts of violence, such as multiple instances of Europeans setting fire to cell phone towers. 

On its face, this theory is absurd. Everything we know about virology, based on the germ theory of disease, disproves the possibility that a virus can be transmitted from a cell phone tower to your mobile phone through electromagnetic radio waves. Also, if it were true, we could expect that the countries with the most advanced 5G networks would be the hardest hit by the virus, and the countries that have no 5G networks would be safe zones. Unsurprisingly, the numbers don’t bear this out at all. 

There are, however, some very reasonable trepidations with 5G that are unrelated to COVID19, particularly with networks that have been set up by Chinese companies. These companies, Huawei being the largest and most closely involved with international 5G development, have deep ties to the Chinese Communist Party. So it goes with all Chinese companies, they cannot be thought of as independent entities, since China’s private sector is ultimately state-controlled in all aspects. Even so, Huawei has been directly implicated in a number of intellectual property and privacy scandals, in America and elsewhere, as well as having a central role in the development of the prison-like surveillance state in the far-western Chinese province of Xinjiang. 

It would be wise for world leaders to address the real concerns that stem from adopting Chinese 5G technology, but that does not excuse outlandish anti-5G claims. This one is definitely a conspiracy theory. 

  1. The virus came from one of the two virus research facilities in Wuhan

There are two labs in Wuhan that have been proposed as being the potential source of the virus: The Wuhan Center for Disease Control, which is just several hundred feet from the wet market, and The Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which is about 8 miles from there. 

Despite the Wuhan CDC’s astoundingly close proximity to the wet market, it is more likely that the virus came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology instead. While both of these labs experimented with bat coronaviruses, and both have been accused of unsafe working conditions, the Wuhan Institute of Virology was the only biosafety level 4 (BSL 4) lab in Wuhan, a security designation given to labs that gives them internationally recognized clearance to experiment on the most deadly and infectious diseases. The Wuhan Institute of Virology was also the base for Dr. Zhengali Shi, one of the world’s foremost experts on bat coronaviruses. 

Most significantly, leaked State Department cables from 2017 show that representatives who visited WIV sent two official warnings back to Washington about the unsafe conditions there, and even specifically mentioned that “the researchers also showed that various SARS-like coronaviruses can interact with ACE2, the human receptor identified for SARS-coronavirus. This finding strongly suggests that SARS-like coronaviruses from bats can be transmitted to humans to cause SARS-like diseases.” 

In other words, the coronaviruses being researched at the WIV likely didn’t need to infect an intermediary animal before becoming infectious to humans, making these experiments far more hazardous and more likely to have been the source of COVID19. 

On the whole, this theory is worth further investigation. But it is also more complicated, since it breaks down into three different subtheories, each with vastly discordant likelihoods of being true…

3a. The virus was a bioweapon developed or genetically altered in one of these labs 

There is uniform agreement among virologists, American intelligence agencies, and intelligence agencies in other countries, that COVID19 was probably not a bioweapon or genetically altered by humans in any way. Researchers have established solid genetic links between COVID19 and a coronavirus found in bats in southeastern China, making it unlikely that it needed any human induced genetic alterations to become infectious to people. 

Another thing to consider is the unprecedented price China would pay if they were caught releasing a bioweapon that turned into a global pandemic – a price the CCP would have surely been aware of. Hard evidence of a plot like this would not only solidify the United States’ position as the unquestioned global hegemon, it would also run the palpable risk of violent retaliation from a united global coalition, and likely even a campaign to forcibly remove the CCP from power. On multiple occasions, the CCP has demonstrated its inclination towards brazen self-interest with international dealings, but purposefully releasing a bioweapon as devastating as COVID19 would be shockingly ambitious, even by their standards. If there is one thing that’s consistent in contemporary Chinese politics, it’s that the CCP will value its own longevity above all else.

This theory isn’t scientifically impossible in the same way as the 5G conspiracy, but it’s so unlikely that it can be safely considered a conspiracy theory with the information we have now. 

3b. The virus escaped inadvertently from one of the Wuhan labs, and the CCP initially tried to cover it up. But once they did react, they tried to prevent it from getting out of China. 

The CCP took a number of steps to suppress information of the outbreak in the first weeks they became aware of it. They silenced doctors, censored posts on Chinese social media, and lied about the situation to the international community as well as to the Chinese public. 

But there are also things that the CCP did to suggest they were working hard to prevent the virus from escaping China. The lockdown of Wuhan, though late in coming, was probably the most stringent of any in the world. At the same time, there was an unparalleled nationwide initiative to combat the virus, including security guards with thermometers being posted at most buildings throughout China, and drones reprimanding people who went outside without a face mask. They also developed an app, which the CCP requires every citizen to get on their phones, that tracks each person’s contagion risk. In order to go into most public places, every person must flash this app to a security guard. A green light means the person poses no contagion risk and is free to go in, while a red light indicates that they do pose a risk (it’s unclear how exactly this is determined), and usually leads to the person being taken to quarantine. 

Indeed, most of these measures were primarily directed at preventing the virus from spreading within China as opposed to outside of it. But given how far-reaching and invasive these policies were, they could reasonably be conceived of as being geared towards containment within China as well. 

Based on the notable amount of circumstantial evidence, this seems to be the most plausible explanation we have right now for how COVID19 originated. Definitely not a conspiracy theory. 

3c. The virus inadvertently escaped from a Wuhan lab, but once the CCP realized how serious the outbreak was, they purposefully allowed it to spread all over the world. 

This theory has recently been given credence by a report from the Department of Homeland Security, which concluded that China downplayed the severity of the outbreak – including getting the WHO to parrot their lie that they had no evidence of human-to-human transmission – in order to hoard medical supplies. It has also been alleged by President Trump that they purposefully allowed it to escape China in order to weaken the United States. 

Unfortunately, President Trump and his Administration haven’t been honest themselves throughout this crisis, so their claims don’t carry as much weight as they might otherwise. 

Be that as it may, as serious as this accusation is, it wouldn’t be totally uncharacteristic of the CCP to do something like this. A ruling power that runs concentration camps, harvests organs from undesirables, and promotes ethno-nationalism has already effectively proven its ruthlessness in the pursuit of power. President Xi has been clear about his intentions to make China the world leader in every major innovation sector – military, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, etc – by the year 2049. This was also supposed to be the final year of his campaign to abolish poverty in China. If China were the only country to suffer from COVID19, it certainly would have been a major setback to all of these goals, and could have jeopardized President Xi’s hold on leadership in the CCP. None of this constitutes material evidence by any means, but it is enough to establish a clear motive. 

More information is needed for this theory to be more likely to be true than the previously mentioned one, which attributes COVID19’s global spread to a botched cover up and late action taken by the CCP. But it is certainly plausible, and not a conspiracy theory. 

Addendum: Essential to distinguish between 3a, 3b, and 3c

Just yesterday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was asked in an interview if he believes that COVID19 was man made or genetically modified. He replied by saying – in what was arguably deliberate ambiguity – that “the best experts seem to think so.” 

There have also been a number of reputable media outlets that have blurred the line between these theories, making it appear as if to believe one is to believe all three of them. 

This is untrue. As has already been laid out in the previous section, experts agree that it’s incredibly unlikely COVID19 was man made or genetically modified. Experimenting on bats that already carry coronaviruses – experiments that we know regularly took place at both Wuhan labs – is not the same as genetically modifying a virus, and certainly not the same as creating a novel virus synthetically. Furthermore, COVID19 escaping from a lab and the CCP accidentally letting it out of the country is not the same – technically or ethically – as the virus escaping from a lab and the CCP purposefully allowing it to spread worldwide. 

This isn’t just semantics. The differences between these theories amounts to the difference between gross negligence (3b), a malicious and deadly damage control strategy (3c), and a premeditated act of war (3a). In American criminal law, this is the difference between first degree murder, second degree murder, and manslaughter, all of which carry penalties that differ, often significantly, in terms of their severity. 

An effective way to grasp this crucial distinction at the global level of analysis is to consider the differences in how the international community would respond to each of them. 

If 3a were true, military conflict would be unavoidable. It would amount to China having levied the single most destructive act of war in the history of mankind, by far. And not just against the United States, against the entire world. China would lose every country it has worked to extort into alliance with them over the past couple of decades, and all of them would most likely shift to a pro-America stance in the immediate term. The world would have no choice but to remove the CCP from power in order to ensure the survival of the human race. It need not be elucidated how catastrophic a war between China and the rest of the world would be, which only underscores the importance of avoiding any suggestion of this accusation until there is a preponderance of evidence behind it. 

If 3b were true, there would likely be measures taken by the international community to ensure it never happened again. These might include, for instance, mandating that China finally ban wet markets completely, stripping them of all their BSL-4 credentials, and installing a comprehensive team of medical experts handpicked by the international community to monitor future outbreaks in China. There would also probably be repercussions, in the form of monetary reparations maybe, for the CCP’s attempted cover-up of the initial outbreak. It would certainly be a major setback for China, but there wouldn’t be a global military conflict. The CCP would probably be able to remain in its position as oppressor to its own people and quasi-imperialist to developing nations. And they’d probably still be the second most powerful nation in the world, with a path towards becoming the most powerful in the future, albeit a narrower one than before all this. 

If 3c were true, the response would look like something between those in scenarios 3a and 3b. There could be violent conflict, to be sure, but it would be less likely. The CCP would appear to be a far greater threat to global stability if 3c were true than 3b, but not nearly as much of one as in 3a. 3a is in-and-of itself an act that threatens humanity, and shows that the CCP would probably do it again if they aren’t removed from power. 3c, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily demonstrate that the CCP is actively trying to destabilize the global order, just that they are willing to destabilize said global order if it saves them from a collapse. 

Put differently, 3c seems to closely resemble the situation in North Korea – where many experts fear the Kim family will use their nuclear weapons if they feel like it is the only way for them to retain power. The closest comparison that exists to scenario 3a would be another hypothetical scenario in which ISIS, or another group with a comparable ideology, got a hold of nuclear weapons. The statements ISIS has made about martyrdom, jihad against the West, and the centrality of establishing a global Islamic Caliphate all suggest that if they were to acquire nuclear weapons, they would eagerly use them against America or Europe. They would pose an immediate, existential threat to the world, whereas North Korea only poses a peripheral and contingent one. 

The information publicly available right now suggests to me that 3b is the most likely explanation for the virus’s origins, with 3c being the second most likely, and 1 being the third.