By Zack Pelosky ’24
COVID-19. The novel disease has torn through the world like wildfire, killing over 130,000 people in the United States thus far.
Schools closed, work stopped, daily life ground to a halt; all have felt the shockwave of this disease in one form or another. Stock markets crashed, unemployment rates reached century-highs, and quarantine was implemented nearly universally. Restaurants, gyms, theaters, and stores were closed indefinitely. Economic unrest ensued: the United States added $7 trillion in stimulus and economic recovery packages to its $22 trillion debt per the Washington Post.
COVID-19 has unraveled the globe, causing world leaders to scramble to ameliorate both public health and economic crises. The origins of the pandemic that caused this worldwide turmoil largely remain an enigma.
According to several scientists at Columbia University, the most likely cause was natural transmission from bats to humans, or from bats to an intermediary to humans, somewhere in China—likely Wuhan. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that the virus may have derived from the consumption of bats at the Wuhan Hanaan wet market.
Ultimately, the WHO was not allowed into China to investigate the origins of the virus. Columbia’s researchers, though, communicated with the Chinese government and their scientists to reach their conclusion. Both theories—that of the bat-to-human transmission or the bat-to-intermediary-to-human—may be highly flawed due to their heavy reliance upon the Chinese Communist Party.
More recently, many, including President Donald Trump, have fostered a new theory: COVID-19 emerged from a virology lab. Trump’s claim was almost immediately dismissed by the mainstream media and many of the country's leaders on both sides of the aisle as he was consistently rendered a “xenophobe” and “racist” for mentioning the possibility of the virus’s origin having ties to the Chinese government. But was his claim dismissed too quickly?
Some speculate that the virus originated from a biowarfare lab on the outskirts of Wuhan, the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). It is a biosafety level 4 (p4) facility and lies within five miles of the infamous Hanaan wet market. A p4 biosafety grade is the highest grade possible, which means that the world’s most dangerous diseases are studied on-site. Diseases such as Ebola and Zika have been studied and researched in labs of that grade. According to the National Institute of Health, the WIV received at least $3.4 million in funding from the United States (beginning in 2014), though the number is disputed as President Trump totals the number to be closer to $8 million. Due to the possibility that COVID-19 originated in that lab, on April 28th, President Trump cut all of its U.S. funding.
Some suspect that China wanted to flaunt its ability to take control and show the world its global superpower status. They could have targeted the intentional release of the virus so it was easier for them to contain it in China but not to the rest of the world. This theory is plausible as after China recognized the virus, they restricted national travel out of Wuhan but not internationally.
The release of the virus could have also been an accident; a researcher may have contracted the virus while studying it and proceeded to spread it unknowingly. Coincidentally, or maybe not, the Chinese whistleblowers believe patient zero to be a researcher at the WIV. The whistleblowers are—and were—a group of doctors who worked at a Wuhan hospital who were conversing about a ”pneumonia-like disease”. They noted that their first known patient was a WIV doctor on a WeChat conversation.
Regardless of whether or not the virus originated in a lab, there is a general international consensus that the virus is a product of bat-to-human contact that possibly included an intermediary. Many speculate that China labeled the virus a sanitary mishap as a result of bat consumption in the Wuhan wet market as an attempt to cover up its intentional release of COVID-19 and rely upon several independent Chinese sources, who stated that bats were never sold in that specific wet market. Such a theory would raise a myriad of questions surrounding China’s possible intentions of biological warfare and guilt of crimes against humanity.
An unfortunate possibility exists which states that this transmission occurred at the WIV. This conclusion comes from the research of the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin: “U.S. Embassy officials warned in January of 2018 about inadequate safety at the Wuhan Institute of Virology lab and passed on information about scientists conducting risky research on coronavirus from bats.” Just before the virus emerged as an imminent threat to the Chinese government, they procured over two billion Personal Protective Gear–grade (PPE) masks—a notably suspicious hoarding of supplies as they tripled their spending on PPE from late 2019 to early 2020.
Regarding the spread of COVID-19, there is an international agreement that China mishandled the situation and bears the brunt of the responsibility with respect to the proliferation of the virus.
A University of Southampton study showed that if China had reacted to the virus when concern was raised by Dr. Li Wenliang—a doctor from Wuhan—cases and deaths would have been down 95%. Dr. Wenliang had stressed the dangers of COVID-19 about three weeks before China reacted as they notified the WHO and commenced quarantines.
Unfortunately, Dr. Wenliang, China’s most outspoken whistleblower, died a suspicious death in early February from ‘coronavirus related causes’, per the Chinese Communist Party. Five other doctors died from the same hospital, often referred to as the “Whistleblower Hospital”. That much-needed time could have been used to prepare for the effects of the virus, and in turn, save countless lives; the world could have had more time to work towards developing tests, growing stockpiles, and restricting travel.
Had the Chinese government listened to Wuhan’s medical professionals, many suspect that the virus would never have spread to the rest of Asia and across the world. Several scientists have considered the possibility that COVID-19 accidentally escaped from the Institute of Virology. That the virus intentionally or unintentionally escaped the Wuhan Institute of Virology are both plausible theories, as are the theories involving the wet market, but the lingering question is which theory was the reality?