Coronavirus: A natural epidemic?

Nehal Al-Ashkar , Tuesday 24 Mar 2020

As pharmaceutical companies worldwide race to find a vaccine for the new coronavirus, some are asking whether the pandemic has been artificially created, writes Nehal Al-Ashkar


According to figures released by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on 19 March, the new coronavirus Covid-19 had led to the deaths of some 9,000 people worldwide and infected hundreds of thousands more.

At least 4,084 deaths have been reported outside of mainland China, where the majority of cases had previously been reported, including nine in the US, which has reported thousands of cases. The number of cases reported outside China has increased almost 13-fold, and the number of affected countries has almost tripled.

The infection is quickly spreading around the world, with social, political, and financial impacts wherever it goes. Governments are putting in place countermeasures to stem its spread and anticipate flare-ups in the future.

Blame for the Covid-19 pandemic has triggered conspiracy theories about its origin. Some, including politicians in the US, have even proposed that the new coronavirus that is causing the pandemic may be a bioweapon produced in a lab. The main contrast between their theories is who is being blamed for the viral epidemic.

Some in the US are claiming that China made the virus. US journalist Steve Mosher wrote on 22 February in the New York Post “don’t buy China’s story: the coronavirus may have leaked from a lab.” China has a biosafety level-four (BSL-4) laboratory in Wuhan, he claimed, where scientists work on potentially life-threatening agents such as the Ebola virus, Lassa fever, and the Marburg virus. China, the place where the outbreak started, may have housed some types of coronaviruses among other pathogens in its labs, Mosher claimed.

However, having a lab that reviews terrible pathogens does not imply that that lab discharged them. Some others are claiming that the US was the one that released the virus in China.

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian wrote on Twitter that “it might be the US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan.” According to commentator Mu Chunshan, “Zhao was referring to the fact that in October last year, the Military World Games were held in Wuhan, with more than 300 Americans participating. That gave rise to a conspiracy theory that American athletes infected with the virus may have brought it to Wuhan.”

“In addition to the questions raised by Zhao, a broader conspiracy theory is that the flu season in the United States gave rise to a large number of new coronaviruses — including Covid-19. I know some Americans have raised similar doubts, but in the eyes of some Chinese, this is already a fact, and one that the United States is trying to cover up.”

“Others have linked the Covid-19 epidemic to the fact that thousands of Americans came down with lung illnesses last year blamed on e-cigarettes. They think this is also an example of the US government covering up the discovery of the new coronavirus,” Chunshan wrote.

According to the Washington Post, “official US government reaction to how China has dealt with the crisis continues to focus more on scoring PR points against Beijing than on working with China to halt the virus’ spread.”

“On Monday, President [Donald] Trump sparked anger when he called Covid-19 ‘the Chinese Virus’,” it noted. The tactic, also deployed by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who favours calling it the “Wuhan virus”, is designed to “keep the focus on China’s [supposed] responsibility for the outbreak, despite the urging of the WHO to avoid using names for the virus that could incite racial discrimination or xenophobia,” the Washington Post wrote in an opinion piece.

 In a Facebook post, Kaiser Kuo, editor-at-large of the news site SupChina, bemoaned the US-China recriminations. “So sick of this,” the article said. “Instead of teaming up against the virus, people have been “pushing baseless conspiratorial hogwash in both Beijing and DC”.

Thus far, neither the hypothesis that the infection was created as a biological weapon nor the idea that the virus escaped from the laboratory appears conceivable. The only fact that seems to be known for sure is that the infection jumped to humans from animals at a seafood market in Wuhan.

THE VIRUS: Humans and animals including bats harbour an assortment of coronaviruses. The progressively deadlier SARS outbreak in 2002-2003 is also thought to have been caused by a virus from animals. It would not be surprising if something similar happened again in the case of Covid-19.

According to scientist Cynthia Lui in a paper on “Research and Development on Therapeutic Agents and Vaccines for Covid-19 and Related Human Coronavirus Diseases”, there are four classes of coronaviruses designated as alpha, beta, gamma, and delta. The beta coronavirus class includes the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus, the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) virus (MERS-CoV), and the Covid-19 virus or SARS-CoV-2.

Similar to SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, SARS-CoV-2 attacks the lower respiratory system to cause viral pneumonia, but it may also affect the gastrointestinal system, heart, kidneys, liver, and central nervous system, leading to multiple organ failure. Current information indicates that SARS-CoV-2 is more transmissible/contagious than SARS-CoV.

As Lui writes, the viruses have “76 per cent of sequence similarity in their S proteins. In addition, although the PLpro sequences of SARS-CoV-2 and SARS-CoV are only 83 per cent similar, they share similar active sites.” There are “no SARS-CoV-2-specific antiviral agents. Researchers have been racing to find possible treatments to save lives and produce vaccines for future prevention,” she wrote.

David Fisman, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health in Canada, told the US magazine Foreign Policy that “this coronavirus is definitely novel. And new viruses, especially those that move fast, can cause panic. Panic leads to people casting about for conspiracy theories. But diseases that quickly mutate and infect humans are simply part of nature. Welcome to emerging infectious diseases.”

According to Ayman Abdel-Hamid, a consultant on chest diseases in Egypt, “the situation is serious but not critical,” and the virus kills only an estimated two per cent of those infected. Egypt is also well-prepared for the virus. “We are expecting more than 50 per cent of people to be infected with the virus, and that would be positive if there was a second wave of the virus,” he said. “This does not mean that all will have severe illnesses, but people should take it seriously and stick to the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organisation [WHO].”

Whereas some politicians have been playing blame games and focusing on conspiracy theories regarding the coronavirus outbreak, the countries that have thus far been most afflicted have been confronting it on many levels. Italians have started to sing patriotic songs from their balconies during the coronavirus lock down to lift their spirits and pass the time during the quarantine due to Covid-19.

Andrà tutto bene (things will be alright) is a motto spread by people to boost their solidarity after a large number of children were stuck at home since their schools and nurseries were closed. Many people have been giving out notes bearing the Cantonese word jiayou (don’t give up) that has been utilised regularly in Wuhan since the outbreak began.

Italy, by far the hardest-hit European country, according to WHO reports, has more than 50,000 confirmed infections and more than 6,000 deaths. Italy has banned all travel unless certified necessary on professional or health grounds, and its 62 million population are expected to stay at home.


EVERY 100 YEARS: According to Foreign Policy, the current “bioweapon speculation isn’t exactly new” on Covid-19.

“In 2003, during the SARS outbreak, the Jamestown Foundation think tank published an analysis suggesting ‘there are compelling reasons, however unsettling, to at least ask whether there might be any linkage between SARS and China’s biological warfare efforts.’ That claim ultimately proved baseless,” it said.

The world has a history of epidemics, and many scientists have been similarly studying whether those epidemics were natural disasters or, by any means, part of some biological warfare. According to a report by the UK channel Sky News, they noticed that it seems that every 100 years the world is devasted by a pandemic.

In 1720, it was the plague; in 1820, it was a cholera outbreak; and in 1920, it was the Spanish flu. The 1720 plague began in the French city of Marseilles and was later called “the Great plague of Marseilles”, with the number of the dead being some 100,000. In 1820, a cholera happened in Asia affecting what are now Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines and leading to some 100,000 deaths.

In 1920, one of the most destructive pandemics took place with the Spanish flu that affected up to one billion people and killed 100 million. Spanish flu is the deadliest pandemic ever recorded. But now, on the 100th anniversary of Spanish flu, humanity is confronting another pandemic in the new coronavirus.

According to Abdel-Hamid, the coronavirus itself is not new, as coronaviruses (CoV) are a huge group of infections that cause sickness going from the common cold to increasingly serious maladies, for example MERS-CoV. The new coronavirus infection, Covid-19, is another strain that was found in 2019 and had not been found previously in people.

“The new coronavirus, Covid-19, is very close to the MERS-coronavirus (MERS-CoV). Since its discovery in 2012, over 1,700 confirmed cases of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) have been documented worldwide. While the greatest number of cases has occurred in Saudi Arabia, this pandemic was not as critical as coronavirus today because MERS-CoV only transmits from dromedary camels to people, while coronavirus is transmitted among individuals,” he said.

However, the science has not stopped the conspiracy theorists, with even the UK newspaper the Guardian reporting parallels between the 19th-century Opium Wars against China and the coronavirus, implying that unnamed “international organisations” were seeking to control Chinese affairs, just as the British in the 19th century forced China to open its markets and cede territory at gunpoint.

It said that a “false panic” about Covid-19 would benefit pharmaceutical companies looking to make money from the virus. Others have claimed that the virus could be a “biological weapon” disseminated by US forces in China.

Researchers at Cardiff University’s Centre for Crime and Security Research in the UK said that pro-Kremlin media has been spreading disinformation about the virus, the Guardian reported. “This tactic allows them to avoid the accusation of creating disinformation themselves, claiming instead that they are merely reporting what others are saying.”

According to the researchers, rather than authoring disinformation, Russian sources were intensifying speculation that had started somewhere else, for example, China, Iran or the US, the specialists said.

BIOLOGICAL WEAPONS: According to US journalist Brent Hernadez writing in the US magazine National Geographic, in 1519 the Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés set sail from Cuba to investigate the Aztec civilisation in what is now Mexico.

Soon, the Aztec ruler Montezuma was dead, the capital city of Tenochtitlan was destroyed, and Cortés had claimed the Aztec Empire for Spain. Spanish weaponry had an impact, but the vast majority of the damage was caused by sicknesses caused by European diseases.

Cortés and his thousand Spaniards would not have been able to defeat a city of 200,000 people with no help being offered him. But a smallpox plague spread in the interior and crushed the densely populated city of Tenochtitlan in 1520, reducing its people by 40 per cent in a single year.

Smallpox causes fever and covers the body with liquid-filled pustules. These transform into scabs, which then form scars. It is deadly in approximately 33 per cent of cases, leaving another 33 per cent with visual weakness. Smallpox existed in ancient times in Egyptian, Indian and Chinese societies. It stayed endemic in humans and came to Europe amid the mediaeval Crusades. When the Europeans began to colonise different parts of the world, smallpox went with them.

The peoples of the Americas, including the Aztecs, were helpless in the face of smallpox since they had never encountered the infection and thus had no resistance. The capacity of smallpox to debilitate and pulverise populations made it attractive as a bio-weapon. In the 18th century, the British attempted to contaminate native American populations, for example. “We gave them two covers and a handkerchief infected with smallpox. I trust it’ll have the required effect,” one commander said. In World War II, British, American, Japanese and Soviet groups all examined the plausibility of creating an organic weapon using smallpox.

Today, in order to combat the new coronavirus, “it is important that we acknowledge cultural diversity among communities,” Abdel-Hamid said, adding that “a strong immune system, healthy lifestyle, and natural habits will help people survive this epidemic.”

As the infection spreads around the world, neither the hypothesis that the infection was created as a weapon nor the idea that it got away from a research facility has been shown to be true. In the year to come, pharmaceutical companies will be trying to produce effective medications and a vaccine. According to US health and human services secretary Alex Azar, “a potential vaccine for the novel coronavirus has been developed by scientists, [and] the Food and Drug Administration has authorised the entry of that vaccine into Phase 1 clinical trials.”

“We need the private sector to invest,” he said, “as price controls won’t get us there” in keeping the eventual prices of such medications and a vaccine affordable.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  26 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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