How #Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories Went Viral, and the Israeli Connection

When asked if COVID-19 could have been a biological weapon, one Israeli expert told me, ‘Do you really think that someone would develop a virus to kill people 70 and older?’

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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A worker disinfects a park on a Bat Yam beach, March 18, 2020.
A worker disinfects a park on a Bat Yam beach, March 18, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

On January 24, The Washington Times quoted Dany Shoham, who raised the possibility that the coronavirus was created in the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Hubei Province, where the epidemic began. Shoham is a researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University and a former lieutenant colonel in Military Intelligence’s research department, where he specialized in chemical and biological warfare.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 71Credit: Haaretz

“In principle, outward virus infiltration might take place either as leakage or as an indoor unnoticed infection of a person that normally went out of the concerned facility,” Shoham told The Washington Times. “This could have been the case with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, but so far there isn’t evidence or indication for such.”

He noted that the virology institute operated under the auspices of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, but some of its laboratories “have linkage with the PLA or BW-related elements within the Chinese defense establishment” – the PLA is the Chinese military; BW stands for biological weapons.

Based on his remarks, American attorney Larry Klayman, a right-wing Republican activist who has been called a serial litigant – he once sued his own mother – filed a class-action suit in federal court against the Chinese government for $20 billion.

As far as is known, Shoham is the first and one of the few observers to raise the possibility that a leak or work accident released the coronavirus. No official source, intelligence service or covert biological research institute has made such an assessment.

Most experts believe that this is a natural virus, not one that was genetically engineered in a lab. They accept the thesis of the Chinese virologists who the day before Shoham’s interview was published announced that they had cracked the genetic code of the virus responsible for the current pandemic. The research into the code showed that this virus is related to the one that caused the SARS epidemic and is similar to the one that caused MERS, which was spread by camels.

According to experts, the sources of the coronavirus infection were bats and snakes that were sold at seafood markets in China. According to this assessment, the virus underwent a mutation before it infected humans.

Some researchers believe the virus originated in pangolins, a type of anteater common in Asia. But these scientific explanations haven’t stopped the groundless speculation that has morphed into conspiracy theories.

Overexcited journalists

The spreading of baseless assumptions, lies and conspiracy theories is hardly a new phenomenon, but it has become much more widespread in the internet era. Over the past decade, especially since the election of U.S. President Donald Trump and the growth of neo-populism, it has made its way from the margins to the mainstream.

Even prominent people who ostensibly are supposed to base their arguments on logic and scientific data occasionally fall prey to conspiracy theories to explain political and cultural developments. This paranoia has infected the coronavirus coverage and is being spread by prominent journalists in Israel and elsewhere.

Most conspiracy-theory lovers accuse China of spreading the virus to collapse the world economy, particularly that of the United States, so it can establish itself as the sole world power.

On the other hand, in China the government disseminated a claim that the United States had created the virus in its military labs at Fort Detrick in Maryland, which in the past has developed viruses, toxins and bacteria for biological warfare. According to this conspiratorial logic, the Americans aimed to damage the Chinese economy à la Trump’s trade war.

Again, none of this holds water. Last week the journal Nature reported on a study by the Scripps institute in California, which said: “Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.”

The coronavirus’ genetic code is very similar to the SARS virus yet there is still a small difference between them. Computer simulations showed that these genetic changes do not make the novel coronavirus more infectious.

The researchers also reason that “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,” which is not true of COVID-19. Nature, it appears, is smarter, as the virus found a way to mutate in a more effective way.

I also contacted an Israeli expert for his opinion. “Do you really think that someone would develop a virus to kill people 70 and older?” said the expert, who asked not to be named.

Polio for sale

Biological warfare – the use of toxins, bacteria, viruses and more to hurt or kill humans and animals – has been around since the dawn of history. In the 14th century, Mongol warriors hurled the corpses of their comrades who died in the Black Death at their enemies.

In 1763, the British tried to spread smallpox among Native Americans. In the 20th century, many armies and intelligence agencies used biological weapons; for example, during World War II, Japan conducted experiments on POWs and attacked China with bacterial weapons. And there are many more examples.

Most countries are signatories to two conventions on the prohibition of the development, production, stockpiling and distribution of biological and chemical weapons. Israel is a signatory to the chemical weapons convention but did not ratify it, and has declined to become a signatory to the biological weapons convention.

There are also countries that are signatories to both conventions but do not adhere to them entirely. For epidemiologists and public health specialists, the smallpox virus is clearly part of the biggest nightmare scenario. Years ago the World Health Organization declared that this disease had been defeated. People are no longer vaccinated against it, but it is a particularly lethal virus with a mortality rate of up to 30 percent. Several years ago, some countries including Israel renewed their stock of smallpox vaccine.

Another area that has been gaining popularity in recent years and could prove equally problematic is DIY synthetic biology. In 2002, with the help of a Pentagon grant, Stony Brook University in New York developed a synthetic polio virus. But there are people trying to develop viruses in private labs – call them pirate labs, if you like. They operate without oversight and safety regulations, usually for commercial and financial purposes, and acquire biological material on the open market.

In 2002, several pirate labs were discovered to be producing the virus. These DIY biologists may be likened to computer hackers. Some have criminal aims and seek financial gain or just want to cause harm, while others do it to repair breaches and security lapses.

In the realm of non-pirate biological research, 50 laboratories around the world have the highest safety classification, including the Israel Institute for Biological Research in Nes Tziona, and hundreds more labs also have a solid record, albeit with lower safety classifications.

This week I asked Shoham if he had changed his mind in light of the studies that have been published in recent months. “As of now there are still no unequivocal findings that clearly tell us what the source of the virus is,” he said.

Now we can only wait to see if the conspiracy theorists once again cite his words to further their cause. Either way, it’s clear that when discussing the circumstances that led to the coronavirus outbreak, there’s no convincing people who have already made up their minds.

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