Fact check: Did the coronavirus originate in a Chinese laboratory?

The claim: The coronavirus may have originated in a Chinese laboratory.

As the new coronavirus spreads, misinformation about its origins circulate the internet.

One of the most prominent examples of false information about the virus is an article published in January by the right-leaning Washington Times that claims the coronavirus may have originated in a research laboratory in Wuhan, China. 

More:Fact check: Coronavirus originated in China, not elsewhere, researchers and studies say

The article quotes a former military intelligence officer who claimed the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a maximum-security Chinese laboratory granted authority to research dangerous pathogens, likely was involved in a biological weapons program.

USA TODAY contacted the author of the article, Bill Gertz, with a request to comment on the source of the claim but did not get a response.

The claim has spread beyond the Washington Times. People on multiple platforms and networks have shared the same or a similar version of the conspiracy. 

A man walks in the street on Feb. 7, 2020, in Wuhan, Hubei province, China.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, has suggested to Congress and Fox News that there may be a connection between the Wuhan lab and the origin of the virus. And conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh wrote in an article in February that “it probably is a ChiCom (Chinese Communist) laboratory experiment that is in the process of being weaponized.”

Former White House strategist Steve Bannon repeated a similar claim on Fox News in March. And opinion columnist Steven Mosher touted the idea in the New York Post in February. 

Vox reported the claim also has been shared widely via message boards in China, prompting Chinese officials to release a statement denouncing the information.

What researchers say: COVID-19 originated in nature

Researchers have been racing to learn about the virus since it was recognized in December 2019 as a new strain. Medical journals have pointed toward animals in nature as the origin of the virus.

There is no evidence to suggest that the virus was created in a Chinese laboratory. People who have claimed it started in a lab only cite the geographical proximity of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a real research lab in Wuhan, and the market where some researchers believe the virus transferred from animals to humans.

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

The Washington Post reported most countries have abandoned their bioweapons programs after years of work did not yield satisfactory results.

Chinese President Xi Jinping visits a hospital in Wuhan on March 10, 2020.

The Scripps Research Institute released a study that rejects the notion that the virus was man-made. Researchers concluded that if the virus were engineered, its genome sequence would more closely resemble earlier and more serious versions of the coronavirus.

“If someone were seeking to engineer a new coronavirus as a pathogen, they would have constructed it from the backbone of a virus known to cause illness,” the report said. “But the scientists found that the SARS-CoV-2 backbone differed substantially from those of already known coronaviruses and mostly resembled related viruses found in bats and pangolins.”

A statement in the Lancet, a medical journal, written by public health officials who have been following the progression of the virus also asserted that animals are the likely source: “Scientists from multiple countries have published and analysed genomes of the causative agent, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), and they overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife.”

The statement referenced multiple academic and government sources that supported the Lancet article’s conclusion. These sources include the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory; Nature; U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine; the New England Journal of Medicine; the Chinese Medical Journal and the medical journal Infection, Genetics and Evolution.

Researchers who analyzed the genome of the coronavirus found its sequence shared a very high resemblance to a coronavirus in bats, but there is a possibility other animals may have been involved in the transmission process.

“2019-nCoV is 96% identical at the whole-genome level to a bat coronavirus,” a study published in the science journal Nature said.

Another study published in the Lancet found results based on samples collected from nine patients who had contracted the virus corroborated the theory that the virus had come from bats. Researchers concluded the genome sequences of the coronavirus “was closely related … to two bat-derived severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)-like coronaviruses.”

Although scientists say they believe bats were likely the original host, it’s also very possible, the study notes, that the virus was transferred from a bat to another animal that may have been at the seafood market in Wuhan.

Our ruling: False

The claim is that the coronavirus began in a Chinese laboratory. We rate this claim as FALSE, based on our research. Overwhelming scientific evidence suggests the coronavirus originated in nature, and there is no evidence to suggest otherwise.

Our fact-check sources:

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