COVID crisis captivates conspiracy theorists

By Joan Conrow

March 30, 2020

In the face of a global catastrophe like COVID-19, it’s only natural that frightened, anxious people try to ascribe blame in their quest to understand why. The problems arise when they demonize the wrong villain — especially for ideological or political motives.

Most recently, some have begun trying to blame this novel strain of coronavirus on genetic engineering and modern agricultural practices — a stance that defies the science.

The most vivid example of this thinking was a conspiratorial missive published March 26 by Ronnie Cummins, founder and director of the Organic Consumers Association, a nonprofit that has funded and orchestrated the anti-GMO movement.

Cummins falsely claimed: “It’s not clear yet whether COVID-19 was weaponized in one of the world’s numerous, and secretive, chemical and biological warfare laboratories (such as the ones in Fort Detrick, Maryland, or the one in Wuhan, China) and then was accidentally or deliberately released, or whether its toxic potency was accelerated by “normal” genetic mutations as it passed from bats and pangolins through humans.”

Actually, there has never been any serious doubt that COVID-19 has entirely natural origins. This was again confirmed scientifically on March 17 when researchers published investigations of the coronavirus’ genome sequence data in the journal Nature Medicine, showing its likely path to the current pandemic.

As Science Daily reported:

“By comparing the available genome sequence data for known coronavirus strains, we can firmly determine that SARS-CoV-2 originated through natural processes,” said Kristian Andersen, PhD, an associate professor of immunology and microbiology at Scripps Research and corresponding author on the paper.

This evidence for natural evolution was supported by data on SARS-CoV-2’s backbone — its overall molecular structure. 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. 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.

Josie Golding, PhD, epidemics lead at UK-based Wellcome Trust, said the findings by Andersen and his colleagues are “crucially important to bring an evidence-based view to the rumors that have been circulating about the origins of the virus (SARS-CoV-2) causing COVID-19.”

“They conclude that the virus is the product of natural evolution,” Goulding adds, “ending any speculation about deliberate genetic engineering.”

But even that strong declaration hasn’t stopped pseudoscientists like Johan van Dongen, a Dutch “experimental microsurgeon,” from publishing outlandish claims in newspapers like Modern Ghana, where he spun a similarly elaborate scenario to Cummins by also claiming that COVID-19 is a “bioweapon from a military laboratory.”

These COVID conspiracy theories don’t just excite the political left. The far-right Washington Times also speculated that the virus was engineered — a theory echoed by United States Sen. Tom Cotton in a February interview on Fox News and repeated by conservative political commentator Rush Limbaugh on his radio show.Though the New York Times branded it a “fringe theory” and USA Today recently debunked it in a “fact check” article, citing the Nature Medicine paper, neither Cummins, Cotton, Limbaugh nor the Washington Times have corrected the record.

In what Julian B. Gewirtz, an international affairs scholar at Harvard, termed “a new, low front,” China has also used social media to advance the totally unsubstantiated theory that the COVID-19 is actually an American disease, spread by US troops who visited Wuhan last fall.

In an article published earlier this month in the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto, attorney Francesco Bilotta took a slightly different tack, blaming genetically modified (GM) crops for the COVID-19 outbreak.  In that article, Bilotta falsely claimed that GM crops cause genetic contamination that can allow viruses to proliferate and spread between species. Italian science communicators immediately denounced the report, with the organization Scienze e Tecnologie scolding the author for promoting false narratives during a crisis. Other researchers called out the claim’s “scientific absurdity” in an article published in the journal Scienza in Rete.

Meanwhile, Ugandan anti-GMO activist Giregon Olupot, a soil scientist and faculty member at Makakere University who has worked successfully for years to stall the nation’s biosafety bill, is banging the same drum.

In a March 26 email widely circulated to scientists and policy makers, Olupot claimed: “Those who continue to live in denial will find it easy to dismiss what is happening around us as conspiracy theories. The problem we are dealing with of covid-19 is among the concerns we have raised about the inability of scientists to control the cut [sic] once it has been let out of the bag!

“It is important to appreciate that as the US Department of Agriculture ventured into the agenda to engineer our food, the Pentagon pursued the engineering of super viruses that would spread diseases through mere sneezing,” Olupot continued. “How come the outbreak of H1N1 virus (bird flu) followed the same path where a particular consignment of day old chicks passed/was delivered? Because of the powers that be, the real root cause of bird flu, was swept under the carpet. It is a matter or [sic] time before we get to hear about covid-19.”

In a similar vein, groups like Global Justice Ecology and Nigeria’s Health of Mother Earth Foundation(HOMEF) are wrongly claiming that modern agriculture is responsible for the rise of viruses that originate in animals and migrate to humans, such as COVID-19. While they correctly assert that the loss of natural habitats and human encroachment into wild areas has contributed to the rise of zoonotic viruses, this is neither new nor due to modern agricultural practices.

In fact, the likely real origin of the virus  is one of China’s wild livestock markets, which also likely birthed the SARS coronavirus that panicked the world in 2003. Though scientists have not definitively identified the origin of COVID-19, they laid out two possible scenarios in their Nature Medicine paper: The virus evolved to its current pathogenic state through natural selection in a non-human host and then jumped to humans, or a non-pathogenic version of the virus jumped from an animal host —perhaps pangolins, civets or ferrets — into humans and then evolved to its current pathogenic state within the human population.

In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, China banned the consumption of terrestrial wildlife to protect public health. But that’s not enough, according to a new Science article published by seven Chinese researchers, because diseases can still be transmitted through the country’s traditional medicine and wildlife farming industries. They are calling for China to take a comprehensive approach to developing wildlife policies based on scientific evidence and say subsidies and support also are needed to help practitioners transition away from risky traditional medicine and wildlife farming activities.

But unless other countries that have similar practices also follow that lead, it may be difficult to prevent another zoonotic virus from wreaking havoc on humans in a future pandemic, sparking a new round of outrageous claims and conspiracy theories.