No, the Wuhan coronavirus is not an escaped bioweapon

Recent widespread rumors that the Wuhan coronavirus is an escaped bioweapon are irresponsible alarmism unsupported by the underlying facts. While blowback from bioweapon development leading to disease outbreaks is a staple of plague fiction, from 1971’s The Andromeda Strain, to 1995’s Outbreak, to the recent Planet of the Apes films, it’s extremely unlikely that is the case here.

Despite the location of China’s premier virology institute and only BSL-4 virology laboratory within 20 miles of the outbreak’s origin, the evidence so far points overwhelmingly to yet another coronavirus outbreak of animal origin, most similar to the SARS outbreak 17 years ago.

In responsible circles, the current theory about the virus’s origin is that it was very similar to the origin of SARS: an endemic coronavirus in bats spread through an intermediary wild animal sold as food in an exotic meat market in China. The initial cases of the Wuhan strain were all confined to vendors and customers from a small number of nearby stalls in the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, where exotic meat was sold with few or no safety precautions.

It’s unknown what intermediary transmitted the Wuhan strain, but direct transmission from bats is considered unlikely.  The WHO has been receiving primary clinical information — i.e. the raw patient data and samples — from the Chinese medical authorities, and cases have been tracked inside Wuhan by evaluating their connection to the fish market.

After the virus’s genome was sequenced, a rapid analysis of codon frequencies (the tendency of the virus’s genome to use different options for three-letter RNA sequences that spell the same amino acid in the cell’s genetic code) suggested that venomous snakes were a possible reservoir source. Viruses often evolve to mimic the codon frequencies of their host organisms, because they use host tRNAs to replicate, and the tRNA libraries of each host are optimized to translate the host’s codon frequencies. This creates an evolutionary pressure to mimic the host’s codon distribution. Venomous snakes are sold as food in the Huanan market, possibly suggesting direct transmission.

However, this theory has been largely cast aside as sequence alignment to all known animal coronaviruses has revealed a 96% alignment with an endemic bat coronavirus [PDF]. Although bats are sometimes sold as food in China, current scholarly thinking is aligning on the notion of an intermediary host — i.e. the virus jumped from bats to some other animal, then to humans — although it’s not clear which one.

All of this information linking the virus to bats and suggesting an intermediary host has been directly confirmed by laboratories independent of the Chinese government.

So in order to believe the Wuhan virus is a bioweapon, you’d have to believe that the Chinese government engineered a coronavirus by starting with an exotic wild strain instead of a strain known to infect humans. Then you also have to believe they either intentionally released it in the exact time, place, and manner that would be most suggestive of a wild origin (i.e. in a seafood market), or they falsified all the clinical data on early cases to suggest a fish market origin that was not real. In other words, you’d have to believe in a massive and extremely competent conspiracy, aimed at covering up the release of a bioweapon based on a very unlikely strain of virus.

Such theories, like coronaviruses themselves, shouldn’t be allowed to spread unchecked.

Be prepared. Don’t be a victim.

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    • Pamela LJ

      Hello to the dedicated team at!

      Thank you for your thoughtful and cautious analysis and comments on the Wuhan coronavirus. I agree that fear mongering is unhelpful, and that hysteria may drive people to buy drugs (thus increasing the profits of Big Pharma, as apparently happened during the 2001 anthrax scare, and the avian flu in 2005). Hysteria can also contribute to unhelpful civil unrest.

      However, I am wondering if you are aware of the many scientists, researchers and doctors who have presented convincing evidence in recent years that many disease outbreaks have been engineered and intentional, or due to accidental releases of bioweapons under study. I was quite surprised and dismayed to learn this in the last 15 months! Your long-term readers are likely well aware of this, which is probably why you chose to write this article.

      Some very compelling evidence exists that biowarfare was possibly behind the Spanish Flu (1918 to 1920), Lyme Disease, Ebola, and HIV.

      At the moment, I suggest that we focus on improving our immunity (using such supports as essential oils, sleep, clean food), reduce our exposure, and calmly prepare for the emergency situations and social events that may result when entire cities are quarantined.

      I truly feel great compassion for the 50 million people in China who are apparently under quarantine as of January 25, 2020. How many of these people have done any emergency preparation for even the highest priority needs such as water, energy, food (or have been able to afford any emergency preparation)?

      The reality is that many people worldwide are affected currently by bushfires, volcanic eruptions, floods, hurricanes, extreme weather and epidemics. I believe that knowing the causes of these emergency events is definitely worth pondering, but that the primary focus for people in the middle of the emergency needs to be on coping. Thank you for your excellent website, and your dedication to providing comprehensive and practical information emergency preparedness.

      With gratitude, Pamela LJ

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    • Ari Allyn-FeuerContributor

      Hi Pamela!  🙂

      Spanish Flu, Lyme Disease, Ebola, and HIV are not bioweapons, and neither is 2019 nCoV.  🙂

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      • P N Ari Allyn-Feuer

        Only the recent viruses are suspected to be bio-weapon. Why do you inlcude things like Spanish flu, Lyme disease…

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    • Jim

      Where you say “The initial cases of the Wuhan strain were all confined to vendors and customers from a small number of nearby stalls in the Huanan Seafood Market” can you explain why researchers confirm the 1st case had no link with the wet market? Sources:

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      • Ari Allyn-FeuerContributor Jim

        Sure.  🙂

        I said “all” because that was the information I had at the time.  I wrote before the Lancet article saying otherwise was published.

        Despite this information, the vast majority of early cases still have the link, and our sources in China (posts upcoming) have told us that testing of surfaces in the market showed significant amounts of coronavirus.  It’s not necessarily the case that every early case will show a link, both because 1) not every wild animal sold for food in Wuhan went through the one market, 2) not every single person will be candid about their history when speaking to doctors, and 3) not every transmission link to the market is legible.  If the disease began spreading earlier than we previously thought, then this point is reinforced, although the Lancet paper only pushes that date back 7 days relative to previous reports.

        Any analysis of a “first case” has to be interpreted in light of our degree of confidence about which case actually was first.  With estimates of the ascertainment rate (percentage of cases known to authorities) in the early epidemic down in the single digits, we can’t have that confidence.

        Although the situation is messy, the market origin hypothesis continues to be a clear leader.  And the people who say “no market origin” aren’t accounting for the facts.  The Lancet paper only says that they found no epidemiological link between the first known case and subsequent cases, not that he had no exposure to the seafood market.  And they say that 14 of the first 41 patients were not directly exposed to the market, not that they were not indirectly exposed, e.g. in the identified family cluster.  And that’s why the Lancet paper’s discussion teaches toward the market hypothesis.

        There’s a lot of noise out there, but the signal is still clear.

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      • David Griffin Ari Allyn-Feuer

        You write :

        The Lancet paper only says that they found no epidemiological link between the first known case and subsequent cases, not that he had no exposure to the seafood market

        But to quote the report in ScienceMag :

        In the earliest case, the patient became ill on 1 December 2019 and had no reported link to the seafood market, the authors report.

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    • Thierry De Pauw
      [comment deleted]
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    • Patrick Low

      Thank you for your technical info.

      The infodemic or false news in the internet is not just irresponsible but evil.

      My blog link here on the origins of the bioweapon nonsense might interest your readers…/wuhan-virus-china…

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