As Earth Day passed this year, much of the world sat at home in isolation, protecting ourselves from the virus wreaking havoc on cities across the globe. When COVID-19 began its massively successful spread out of China, some people looked to conspiracy theories for the source of the outbreak. A Chinese government lab studying viruses, located just down the street from the live animal market reported as the location of the first infection, was the basis for much of this suspicion.
Christian Stevens, a Ph.D. student working in Lee Lab at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, appeared on a podcast called Science Vs. in order to dispel this myth. He says that based on the virus’ genetic code, it’s clear that it was not made by humans. His boss Benhur Lee (of aforementioned Lee Lab) agreed. The podcast host summarized their arguments with the statement, “For Benhur and other scientists who study viruses – they knew right away there was nothing suspicious here … there’s no human fingerprints in its genetic code.”
So why does this myth prevail? Possibly because people are in denial. In the same episode, the podcast asked another virus researcher, Oscar Maclean of the University of Glasgow. He believes this is merely “a convenient scapegoat.” By promoting the idea that this virus was created by humans in a lab, we can ignore the scary fact that something so damaging to humans can happen seemingly out of the blue.
However, many know that this is not out of the blue. Scientists have been predicting this pandemic for years. They’ve even been predicting the source. After all, the H1N1 pandemic was a zoonotic virus that jumped to humans from swine. It’s logical to assume that the next pandemic would also come as a result of human-animal contact. And what environment could be better for this than an animal market where viruses from various animals can combine in a new host, creating a strain that can jump to humans, which is what disease experts such as Dr. Lee actually believe happened here.
So where does this leave us? We know that more contact amongst wild animals, domestic animals, and humans means more chance of a virus like this developing and infecting humans. We also know that situations like this are occurring more and more as humans expand into and further develop in natural spaces around them such as forests.
Who- Hopefully this means that virologists will be a voice of impact in environmental activism communities, and that people who previously may not have cared about issues such as deforestation will become more invested in those issues. What- Now that the world has been forced to open its eyes to the consequences of environmental degradation resulting from human development and expansion, hopefully the dialogue will shift. How- This issue, if addressed correctly by repeatedly showing the public that this virus is a result of human contact with nature and not the work of scientists in a lab, can show a world disengaged with and estranged from environmental issues the real consequences of that disconnect. For many, the idea that nature has intrinsic worth may not be motivating enough to make them care about protecting ecosystems. This crisis is obnoxious, in-your-face proof that the natural world has more worth than that. Earth’s diverse life is what supports us. We are a part of it just as much as it is a part of us, and when we don’t respect that, the system may just come crashing down.
- Cyranoski, David. “Inside the Chinese Lab Poised to Study Worlds Most Dangerous Pathogens.” Nature 542, no. 7642 (2017): 399–400. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature.2017.21487.
- Michael Greger (2007) The Human/Animal Interface: Emergence and Resurgence of Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, Critical Reviews in Microbiology, 33:4, 243-299, DOI: 10.1080/10408410701647594
- Morens, David M et al. “The 1918 influenza pandemic: lessons for 2009 and the future.” Critical care medicine vol. 38,4 Suppl (2010): e10-20. doi:10.1097/CCM.0b013e3181ceb25b
- Rulli, M., Santini, M., Hayman, D. et al. The nexus between forest fragmentation in Africa and Ebola virus disease outbreaks. Sci Rep 7, 41613 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep41613
- Zukerman, Wendy. “Science Vs.” Science Vs. (blog). Gimlet Media, April 24, 2020. https://gimletmedia.com/shows/science-vs/dvheexn/coronavirus-was-it-made-in-a-lab.