Op-ed: SARS-CoV-2 is not a Chinese bioweapon — and apparently that’s an opinion

Sunday, May 24, 2020 - 3:27pm

.

At a briefing on April 30, President Donald Trump mentioned, without any attached evidence, that he had a high degree of confidence in the hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2, the microbiological culprit behind the ongoing pandemic, is an intentional product of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (controlled by the Communist Party of China). Trump later responded to Roberts’s request for evidence by stating, “I can’t tell you that. I’m not allowed to tell you that.” Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s provision of evidence to support this hypothesis, despite a scientific consensus that SARS-CoV-2 is the result of natural selection, appears to be as esoteric as the administration's initial response to the pandemic. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has been a source of great inspiration to me in preparing for medical school applications this month. I pray his service to the American people (despite the executive branch’s arrogance) is honored by future generations as they study the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020.

Yet Dr. Fauci, even with his decades of leadership at the NIAID, appears to be the target of conspiracists’ disdain and the simultaneous darling of Americans with common sense. What is it that makes individuals ignore a respected authority’s credentials? Even with all of the wise actions and words of Dr. Fauci, I remain deeply concerned with the supposed leader of the free world’s public musing about the lab release theory. As was evidenced by hydroxychloroquine use early in March (and compounded by the president’s recent anecdote of his use of the drug), the executive branch’s flouting of evidence-based medical and scientific guidance has led to a growing salience of the lab release theory among the general population. Readers are likely familiar by now with the circulating documentary — published by the Falun Gong-aligned, covertly far-right media outlet The Epoch Times — which involves individuals with superficial titles that seem to provide evidence for the theory. In reality, The Epoch Times is better known for its aggressive advertising than source quality. 

One of the supposed experts heavily featured in that piece was also featured in a more recent, loathingly inaccurate documentary trailer titled “Plandemic: The Hidden Agenda Behind Covid-19” by Mikki Willis. On May 9, Davey Alba for The New York Times wrote, “(Judy A. Mikovits) animatedly described an unsubstantiated secret plot by global elites like Bill Gates and Dr. Anthony Fauci to use the coronavirus pandemic to profit and grab political power.” She has claimed that she worked on the team that discovered HIV and revolutionized its treatment, as well as that Dr. Fauci (and several other government authorities) had buried her research about how vaccines damage people’s immune systems. This apparently makes them more susceptible to COVID-19, according to Mikovits. Although swiftly banned from YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Vimeo, the documentary was quick to propagate among the vaccine-hesitant, “Never Hillary” and “Bernie or Bust” ideologues, QAnoners and, of course, those heavily-armed, self-described patriots of the Reopen America movement. 

I am not one to watch documentaries on YouTube, nor do I accept any scientific or medical conclusions with a primary source of Facebook, Wikipedia, YouTube or Twitter as credible, but to appease my right-wing grandfather and start my Wednesday abundantly pissed, I sat down to watch The Epoch Times’ documentary. I was unable to watch “Plandemic: The Hidden Agenda Behind Covid-19” before it was pulled. Drawing from my graduate training in epidemiology, familiarity with the SARS-CoV-2 literature and almost-religious propagation of the scientific method, there are a handful of important bits that I, as a soon-to-be bonafide public-health practitioner, want you to know in this era.

Mikovits, a largely unknown ex-cancer virologist before 2020, is not at all the revolutionary that circulating videos portray her as. Instead, Mikovits made history when her now-retracted 2009 paper in Science was found to be based on uniformly irreproducible and misleading (and thus invalid) data. After getting fired from her job and spending some time in jail, Mikovits pivoted toward the anti-vax, this-is-what-they-don’t-want-you-to-know bandwagon, which is likely how The Epoch Times and other conspiracist publications knew to reach out. Mikovits brought about her own fall from grace in the scientific community by lying about her work, and there is no evidence that Dr. Fauci played a role in her demise. Many conspiracists try to portray themselves as victims in order to create a sense of credibility to their audience. Oftentimes, conspiracy theorists will try to spin a narrative of findings published by peer-reviewed sources to fit their own agenda (e.g. the Epoch Times film). Connections between real events or findings are often created by the conspiracy theorist to give an air of credibility to their narrative; the connections are almost always tenuous, at best.

Despite their accessibility, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are not legitimate platforms that scientists or medical professionals use to publish their findings. Rigorously peer-reviewed academic and medical journals are where credible findings go to be disseminated to their interested parties (e.g. Science). If the site you found through Google, Twitter or Facebook is not one your doctor would recommend to find high-quality scientific or healthcare info, the content is likely not credible (if not downright dangerous). I believe every doctor’s office should have a plaque at its entrance reading, “Your Google search does not equal my 12 years of medical education.”

Furthermore, conspiracy theories are not theories according to their original scientific definition. They are hypotheses. Hypotheses are designed to be empirically testable and rely on plausibility to construct an experiment. Theories, such as the theory of natural selection, result from abundant testing of relevant hypotheses to the point of being just a hair’s-breadth away from fact. This can get uncomfortably philosophical fast, but know that conspiracy theories are hypotheses, not theories. Conspiracy theories almost uniformly lack experimental plausibility and, therefore, their accuracy can never be objectively confirmed. 

The hypothesis that the Communist Party of China created SARS-CoV-2 isn’t even original. HIV is believed by some to have been created by the U.S. government to reduce the African American population. Others have promoted the idea that the virus behind the Ebola outbreak of 2014 was created by the U.S. government (or Big Pharma — pick your poison). The incredible lengths conspiracists and their followers often go to connect dots that have literally nothing to do with each other is a phenomenon naturally applicable to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. The objective reality that not every preliminary case of COVID-19 could be traced back to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market does not mean SARS-CoV-2 is anything but the product of evolution and zoonosis (the spillover zoonotic diseases from one species to another) — two completely naturally-occurring processes. Viruses, especially RNA viruses like SARS-CoV-2, evolve extremely quickly. This allows virus species to constantly try on new genetic fits for their rapidly changing environment. The better the genetic fit, the greater probability a virus has to be successful and reproduce. As Wuhan is home to millions of people, viruses have ample opportunity to try out new genetic clothes to get a good fit. Unfortunately, SARS-CoV-2 found matches across several species. Evolution was just doing what it does best, and Occam’s razor is, too. 

As the number of new cases per day continues to fall in the United States and Americans have greater cognitive space to reflect on what happened over the last few months, we must lean even more so into the scientists and physicians who have sacrificed everything to fight for us. There is nothing wrong with wanting to know where SARS-CoV-2 came from, how it causes COVID-19 or what its long-term effects will be. The pursuit of knowledge is what makes humans, well ... human. But any time a Google search, friend or relative, media personality, YouTube clip or otherwise mentions something along the lines of “what they don’t want you to know about COVID-19” — please treat it as what it is: an opinion.

Joshua E. Tucker is a Master of Public Health candidate in Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and can be reached at tuckjosh@umich.edu