The recent coronavirus outbreak in China has led to speculations if the government was responsible for the virus. Many conspiracy theorists believe that the Wuhan biosafety lab was responsible for ‘letting out’ the virus as a part of government propaganda to reduce the population.
Over the last decade, the population in China has increased drastically, reaching 1.386 billion in 2017. With the policies in the country to control the population growth, including the one child policy – where families were only allowed to have one child, many people believe that this was also a shameful act by the government to reduce the population in almost no time.
The virus emerged in Wuhan, a central city in the Chinese Hubei Province, in December 2019, after several cases of pneumonia were reported. The World Health Organization took charge of the situation to find the root cause of the infection as an unknown virus. The novel virus, later named as “2019-nCoV”, was found to be a type of coronavirus, whose strain had never represented itself in humans before.
The number of reported coronavirus infections increased drastically over the next few days and so far, have reached a death toll of 106 with more than 4,520 reported cases. Concentrated in Wuhan, the virus has spread to numerous Chinese cities and 10 countries. 20 of these Chinese cities have been quarantined with an estimated 56 million people.
Coronavirus belongs to a branch of viruses responsible for causing infections ranging from a common cold to the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
The symptoms of the infection may take up to 14 days to present themselves and include fever, cough, flu, and shortness of breath. The mysterious virus can also cause pneumonia and SARS, eventually leading to kidney failure and death.
Although the virus spread rapidly, it has been deemed less deadly as compared to SARS – which caused around 800 deaths in its 2002-2003 outbreak.
Since the virus strain has never been seen in humans before, there are no vaccines available in the market, primarily the reason why it spread rapidly before any definitive measures could be taken. The outbreak has been recognized as a ‘global emergency’ by WHO.
The Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory was set up in Wuhan in 2017, designed specifically for studying deadly pathogens, primarily SARS and Ebola. However, the staff was warned that it might lead to the escape of a “SARS-like virus”. According to an article in Nature, the SARS virus had previously managed to escape numerous times in a similar laboratory situated in Beijing.
A ‘Maryland biosafety consultant’, Tim Trevan, in a statement to Nature, a multidisciplinary science journal, revealed that he was concerned with the safety of the institute as the Chinese culture might make it ‘unsafe’. He said, “structures where everyone feels free to speak up and openness of information are important.”
The laboratory is located around 20 miles from the Huanan Seafood Market, where the virus is reported to have emerged. This has raised speculations about the facility is the reason for the outbreak. However, scientists believe that the pathogen mutated and transferred to humans due to the “animal-human contact at the market”.
According to Dr. Richard Ebright, a microbiologist at Rutgers University, “at this point there’s no reason to harbor suspicions that the facility had anything to do with the outbreak, besides being responsible for the crucial genome sequencing that lets doctors diagnose it”.
The Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory is the first lab in the country to get cleared for biosafety-level-4 (BSL-4) standards. BSL-4 is the highest level of biosafety precautions and is appropriate for work with agents that could easily be “aerosol-transmitted” within the laboratory premises and lead severe diseases in humans.
BSL-4 laboratories are generally set up to be “either cabinet laboratories or protective-suit laboratories.” In Cabinet Laboratories, all work is done in a class III biosafety cabinet. The fumes or the materials leaving the cabinet are decontaminated by passing through either an autoclave or a tank of disinfectant. On the other hand, in a protective suit laboratory, all work is done in a class II biosafety cabinet by experts wearing a positive pressure suit.
The first project the facility took up was BSL-3 pathogen, a “tick-borne virus that causes Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever.” The ‘highly fatal disease’ leads to around 10% to 40% deaths of its patients.
Yuan Zhimin, the lab’s director, told Nature in an interview that they wanted to work on SARS, which is also a BSL-3 virus.
However, due to a leak of the SARS virus in one of the laboratories, in 2004, Chinese officials implemented rigorous measures to make sure that the incident didn’t happen again. They worked “to improve safety, but also to expand the country’s capacity to continue to study the very viruses its lab had let out”.
According to Guizhen Wu, “after a laboratory leak incident of SARS in 2004, the former Ministry of Health of China initiated the construction of preservation laboratories for high-level pathogens such as SARS, coronavirus, and pandemic influenza virus”.
The Wuhan lab, which also contains the facilities for animal research, might prove beneficial in developing a vaccine for the disease by testing on the lab animals. For example, the novel virus can be studied on monkeys to develop an antidote, before moving to human testing.
However, the solution comes with its fair share of drawbacks. According to Ebright, monkeys “can run, they can scratch they can bite and the viruses they carry would go where their feet, nails, and teeth do”.
The coronavirus still does not have an identity or a possible course of treatment. Cases have been reported in countries including France, South Korea and Germany and countries like U.S., Britain, and Canada, etc., are currently working on devising a plan to evacuate their citizens from the virus-ridden city of Wuhan.
A team from U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was also made to be sent to China to help with the outbreak. However, the offer hasn’t been accepted by Chinese officials yet. Alex Azar, Health and Human Services Secretary, hopes that the government accepts the offer, as the team’s expertise might prove vital in controlling the epidemic.
The outbreak has also led to a decline in the stock market. According to The Washington Post, “The U.S. stock market rebounded after the outbreak spooked the global investors Monday, causing serious losses. Asian markets opened down Tuesday after the Lunar New Year holiday, with markets in South Korea and Japan, have dropped nearly 3 percent”.
Many Chinese cities have been sealed and traveling in and out of the country has been halted. Travelers who flew from Singapore to Hangzhou have been staying in quarantined hotels, where robots are being used to deliver the food to the rooms.
A recent example was of “Little Peanut”, a human-sized robot that was used for room service in the Chinese Hotel. The delivery system reduced human contact, reducing the probability of the spread of the deadly disease.
Given the severity of the situation and the work the government is trying to do to prevent it from spreading, it is highly unlikely that the epidemic was started by the government itself. Although, the virus has infected a large number of people, the number of deaths is still low and would not effectively contribute to “population control”. Furthermore, if the government was responsible for the outbreak, drastic measures would not have been taken to prevent it from spreading to other areas.