Experts debunk fringe theory linking China’s coronavirus to weapons research

In a photo released by China’s Xinhua News Agency, a medical staff member wearing a protective suit works in the department of infectious diseases at Wuhan Union Hospital on Jan. 28

As China attempts to contain the spread of a new coronavirus that has left more than 100 people dead, rumors and disinformation have spread amid the scramble for answers.

Some of the speculation has centered on a virology institute in Wuhan, the city where the outbreak began. One fringe theory holds that the disaster could be the accidental result of biological weapons research.

But in conversations with The Washington Post, experts rejected the idea that the virus could be man-made.

“Based on the virus genome and properties there is no indication whatsoever that it was an engineered virus,” said Richard Ebright, a professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University.

Tim Trevan, a biological safety expert based in Maryland, said most countries had largely abandoned their bioweapons research after years of work proved fruitless.

“The vast majority of new, nasty diseases ... come from nature,” he said.

The British newspaper Daily Mail was among the first to suggest the possibility of a link between the newly spreading virus and the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory, reporting last week that the lab, which opened in 2014 and is part of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, had been the subject of safety concerns in the past.

A separate article published by the Washington Times, a conservative newspaper in Washington, took the theories a step further, suggesting in a headline that the “Coronavirus may have originated in lab linked to China’s biowarfare program” and pointing to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

The article cited research by Dany Shoham, a former Israeli military intelligence officer, who told The Post he did not want to comment further.

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Scientists have identified certain parts of the world as hot spots for emerging diseases. (Blair Guild, Luis Velarde/The Washington Post) Despite little public evidence, the theory has spread widely on social media, to conspiracy theory websites and in some international news outlets.

The Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory is a “Cellular Level Biosafety Level 4” facility, which means it has a high level of operational security and is authorized to work on dangerous pathogens, including Ebola. Those entering the level 4 lab use airlocks and protective suits. Waste, and even air, is heavily filtered and cleaned before leaving the facility.

Milton Leitenberg, an expert on chemical weapons at the University of Maryland, said he and other analysts around the world had discussed the possibility that weapons development at the Wuhan lab could have led to the coronavirus outbreak in a private email chain but that no one had found convincing evidence to support the theory.

“Of course, if they are doing bioweaponry, it is covert,” Leitenberg said in a phone call, but added it was unlikely the Chinese government would use such a facility for production or even research and development of bioweapons.

The Wuhan lab is well-known and it is relatively open compared with other Chinese institutes: It has strong ties to the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch and was developed with the aid of French engineers.

“Wuhan Institute of Virology is a world-class research institution that does world-class research in virology and imm