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COVID-19 Made in a Lab? A Popular Coronavirus Conspiracy Theory Debunked

May 14, 2020
Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen

Ever since COVID-19 emerged from an outdoor market in Wuhan, China, conspiracy theorists have rejected the notion that the virus somehow made its way from bats to humans and caused a chain reaction of infections. Some people simply could not accept the official narrative and instead decided to try and piece together a story of their own


The problem with conspiracies is that even the people promoting them cannot decide on what really happened. Thus, numerous theories on the origins of COVID-19 have cropped up, ranging from the virus being caused by radiation from 5G towers to the virus being manufactured by the U.S. Army.

One popular theory claims that COVID-19 is actually a biological weapon, developed in a lab somewhere in China and accidentally released to the public. A startling number of people believe this one: According to a recent Pew Research Center study that surveyed 8,914 Americans, 23% of them believed that COVID-19 was created in a laboratory. This conspiracy theory has gained traction, simply because it’s more plausible than the others for a number of reasons.

The first event that seemed to spur conspiracy theories is something that happened with the SARS virus in 2004. According to the WHO, the virus was, in fact, accidentally released from a Beijing laboratory. Two researchers were infected with the virus while working in the lab and quickly spread it to others. 


But this incident isn’t the only thing that stoked the flames of this recent theory. It turns out that the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which does research on different types of viruses, is just a few blocks away from the wet market where COVID-19 emerged. If SARS escaped from a laboratory, couldn’t a couple of scientists have left the Wuhan Institute, infected with the COVID-19 virus which they were supposedly developing, stopped at the wet market on their way home, and unknowingly (or intentionally) caused a global pandemic?

Kristian Andersen, an infectious disease researcher at the Scripps Research Institute in California, decided to investigate this theory. Andersen met with a team of fellow researchers from around the world to analyze the genetic makeup of COVID-19 and determine where it originated. Within only a few hours, it became clear to the researchers that the virus was not manufactured by humans.

Andersen says that if scientists wanted to create a biological weapon, they’d have to reverse-engineer an existing virus and change certain aspects of it to make it more deadly. After analyzing the genetic data of COVID-19, his team found that the virus had certain elements that did not come from any other viruses previously studied–making it impossible that COVID-19 was created from an existing virus.

“This is not a virus somebody would have conceived of and cobbled together. It has too many distinct features, some of which are counterintuitive,” said Robert Garry, a virologist at Tulane University in New Orleans, who worked together with Andersen and the rest of his team. “You wouldn’t do this if you were trying to make a more deadly virus.”


So far, it seems that with this virus, truth is stranger than fiction. Researchers agree that it could not have originated in a lab, and it really did move from another mammal into humans.

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