Your humble author grew up reading science fiction; it was my first passion and continues to be an enduring comfort. I was also born within the ranks of Generation X, so I came along at the right time for the cyberpunk wave in science fiction. I do write for a living now (oh… you noticed?), but as a teen I tried scribbling some sci-fi stories of my own. That turned out to be a bad idea, but you have to find these things out the hard way.
And let me tell you: Had I come up with the ridiculous plot which I am about to lay out here, I would have ripped the paper out of the typewriter (we still used those then), crumpled it up and dunked it in the trashcan, and taken the rest of the day off in self-discipline, because clearly I would have needed a rest. Had I read the plot of the COVID-19 virus in any novel at the time, said novel would be digesting in the guts of the nearest trashcan before long.
If I may borrow a turn of phrase from the late Kurt Vonnegut: this story is a crock of doo-doo.
But it's a real story, it has happened to all of us, and it continues to happen now, so we must deal with it. We're living in a hack science fiction plot now, because God is an author who fears no critic.
The Mystery: Where Did COVID-19 Come From?
OK, so the virus we're all sick and tired of reading about (and I'm sick of writing about) had to come from somewhere, right? Well, viruses mutate constantly, they are very efficient little mutation machines. COVID-19 is descended from a long and distinguished line of coronaviruses, a group of related RNA viruses which infect mammals (that's us!) and birds. There's dozens of these: SARS, MERS, HCoV-229E, HCoV-OC43, and a whole spate of them which have only infected livestock… so far.
Spoiler alert: The full origin story of any virus is always a mystery. Rodents, cattle, pigs, and bats have all been suspected culprits. Not just with coronaviruses, but with any infectious disease. For comparison, we still don't know where HIV/AIDS came from. We have it narrowed down to "probably an ape or monkey bit a human hunter in sub-Saharan Africa prior to WWII."
To try to stay ahead of all the viruses, we have the science of virology, where we study viruses in a laboratory setting to try to understand what they're up to. This is still a relatively young science; the concept of a virus only began to exist in 1898, discovered by Dutch microbiologist Martinus Beijerinck. The catch is that in order to study viruses, you need to have samples of viruses, so you'd better hope that your containment procedures are top notch. In the industry, this factor is referred to as "biosafety."
There are dozens of virology laboratories around the world, just going by this old WWW listing of those who have websites. There are 13 just in the US state of California alone. There is also the GVN (Global Virus Network), a more modern alliance of virology institutions which are, again, scattered around the world. Among the many research centers in China, the famous one you've heard about is the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), in Wuhan Hubei, China.
Lab Leak Theory
To make a long story short, THE THEORY is that COVID-19 originated from an escaped sample at the Wuhan institute. For this to happen, of course, would mean that the Wuhan institute had very poor biosafety.
According to conventional wisdom, our best scientists, and US president Joe Biden's own statement, there's only two possible points of origin for COVID-19: human contact with an infected animal, or a laboratory accident.
However, that is not to say that a laboratory accident can simply create a new virus as an act of genesis. In order for the laboratory to have had a sample of the virus, that virus would still have had to originate from good old human contact with an infected animal anyway, the way we think 99% of all viruses start. So a better way to say it would be that the virus came about in the wild, the laboratory obtained a sample of it, then through a mishap in biosafety practices, the virus escaped containment and began infecting people.
So that would give COVID-19 an origin story like that of King Kong; we found it in the wild, tried to imprison it for our own ends, but it escaped and ran amok anyway.
The Wuhan institute does collect coronavirus species from around the world. These samples are usually obtained from bats, one of the prime vectors for infection. The institute's biosafety precautions include airlocks, full body suits, and chemical baths, which rank it in virology terms as "BSL-4," "bio-safety level 4," considered the top standards in the entire industry. But somehow, they say, a coronavirus sample could still escape.
There is an alternate theory that COVID-19 was a deliberately created bioweapon. This ugly accusation is not entirely without precedent. There is a long and horrible history of diseases used as biological weapons within world history. There are indeed even infectious agents which have been altered, engineered, and deployed in the past, among them Anthrax, Botulinum, and Smallpox.
However, the Wuhan institute has no history of military deployment and has been established as a research institute for the purpose of keeping the public safe from viruses, not infecting them deliberately. Furthermore, we can damned sure nail down the fact that, to date, there has never been a human-made virus engineered from scratch; all known bio-weapons have been cultivated versions of species we already had running wild.
Unfortunately, we're talking about an institute in China here, which has a totalitarian political climate and does its damnedest to make the rest of the world paranoid about what it's up to. This closed secrecy and general shady dealings of China make it a prime target for conspiracy theories. The accusation loop around COVID-19 has gone on since the start of the pandemic. Currently, you can go to any nation in the world and find a theory that COVID-19 started as a bio-weapon deployed from five other nations.
It doesn't help matters that Chinese leadership categorically denies every story that comes out, even the ones with concrete proof, and then turns around and re-denies the denials and backtracks to retract the denials and then denies that it denied the denials. Pseudo-Communistic countries always suck at P.R. There is no doubt in my mind that scientists working in China are just as sick of their government's shenanigans as we Americans are exasperated at our own fumbling idiocracy.
Like EVERY news story to break in the 21st century, there are a billion more misinformation theories out there about COVID-19. These blame COVID-19 on everything from mobile phone networks to meteors to the botched release of Cyberpunk 2077, and have probably hatched a million more conspiracy theories since I started typing this sentence.
Who can save us from this maelstrom of doo-doo?
D.R.A.S.T.I.C. - The Justice League of Twitter!
One of the problems with the COVID-19 origin story is that the entire affair has been politicized out of proportion to all objectivity. As of this writing, the global death toll from COVID-19 is approaching 4 million, with counts up to 8 million, putting it in the top ten for most devastating plagues in history. Yes, people would very much like to know who to bomb about this.
In the aftermath of a disaster, we want a scapegoat.
Enter D.R.A.S.T.I.C. (Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating COVID-19). DRASTIC is based within the social media network Twitter. There are no credentials claimed by DRASTIC, which is composed of Twitter volunteers, some of whom incidentally have a professional background relevant to virology.
They have pledged to get to the bottom of this, while all maintaining the anonymity typical of social media. They include members like "The Seeker," whose profile states simply "I am," "Rossana Segreto" whose profile pic is a silhouette of Mary Poppins, and "Rahul Bahulikar," whose starting credentials are "plant biologist." Cough cough.
Clearly, these intrepid international investigators are the crack reporting team the world needs to break the COVID-19 origin case. Their exploits have been covered by such august publications as C|Net, the special-needs tier of technology reporting which once diagnosed the Linux operating system as cancer. C|Net joins quality journalistic publications such as The Sun, UK, in breathlessly tracking DRASTIC's progress.
If you follow links from DRASTIC's resource page, you'll eventually land on pages like this Nature magazine 2015 article, which, hell's bells, details the concerns around bat coronaviruses infecting humans to produce a new strain. Except it has been updated with the disclaimer:
> "We are aware that 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."
Within and without DRASTIC, a number of leads have emerged which are alleged to point to the possibility that the Wuhan institute engineered COVID-19:
- There's a lab there! Come on, it's right there!
- Some researchers at Wuhan were hospitalized in 2019 for an unknown illness, so that must have been COVID-19.
- Bats were found at the Wuhan lab, man, bats!
- Six miners were sick after they handled bat doo-doo in 2012.
Those miners, by the way, were mining bat guano, which it turns out is highly prized for its fertilizer properties. However, if it turns out to cause global pandemic outbreaks, maybe we can go back to some other kind of fertilizer?
So What If COVID-19 DID Pass Through the Wuhan Lab?
Let's say we find out a definitive answer to COVID-19's origins through this investigation. What profit do we make then?
A deliberate bioweapon manufactured by China's government:
What the hell is anybody supposed to do about it? The Chinese government has already inflicted gross atrocities on humanity, and nobody is going to stand up to them. Take your pick: Tiananmen Square, Falun Gong genocide, the economic Cold War China is waging on the world with counterfeit merchandise, and too many other miserable things about China to count.
Well? There they are, bomb them. What's your hurry? Oh wait: China is too big and has too powerful allies to attack in a full-on war. We all know, from Vietnam to Cambodia to Korea, how well ground wars turn out in eastern Asia. Nobody wants to stand up to the bully. Oh well, guess he gets to go on bullying anyway. China could announce "we made COVID-19 on purpose" and then throw a cocktail party to celebrate, and then the next silence you would hear would be the sound of nothing happening.
An accidental lab slip:
We have exactly the same fallout as the natural-origin story, only it went bat-human-testtube-world rather than just bat-human-world. Somebody at Wuhan gets fired very, very hard and the world gets to burn the witch it wants so badly, then we go on as before.
The virus never touched the inside of the lab:
It turns out that COVID-19 had the same stupid origin story as the dozens of other viruses we know about which have culprits in the animal kingdom. We never accept this answer because we can't just punish bats, so conspiracy theories swirl around about Wuhan until the end of history.
Neither of these three scenarios really help us much with anything in the future. If there do turn out to be issues with the safety features of a BSL-4 institute, we know to beef them up. But so what? In case you all haven't noticed, there are several COVID-19 vaccines that have been developed right now. The only way that could happen is for numerous virology labs all over the world to have acquired samples of the COVID-19 virus.
Come to think of it, there are now several variants of COVID-19 running around out there. What if there are multiple leaks at labs all over the world?