I know it sounds like tinfoil-hat territory, but there are now three pieces of evidence pointing at the conclusion that the Wuhan coronavirus is an accidentally released bioweapon.
UPDATE: Just two. The paper giving evidence for engineering was retracted s a few days after I wrote this.
First point: The propagation statistics of this virus have looked deeply weird from the get-go. In particular, the differential in spread and mortality rates between China and the rest of the world.
This map and accompanying statistics story the story. Inside China, the disease is propagating like crazy and has 2.3% mortality among those showing overt symptoms (which sounds low, but it’s about the same as the devastating 1918 flu virus). Outside of China, the disease has spread very very slowly and there have been zero deaths. If it had comparable lethality among overseas populations to what it has exhibited in China we should have seen approximately 4 overseas deaths by now.
In general, infectious diseases only have this kind of behavioral split when for whatever reason you’re looking at two populations with greatly differing vulnerability to the pathogen. The classic example is Hansen’s disease – leprosy – which is nearly asymptomatic in most of the population but has horrifying symptoms if you are in a minority with exactly the wrong alleles at six identified genetic loci.
In the case of the Wuhan virus, infectivity and lethality may be related to a particular protein called ACE II which, when present in lung cells, acts as a receptor for the virus. This receptor is, apparently, common in East Asians but not in other populations.
If you were designing a targeted bioweapon, this is exactly the kind of discriminator you’d look for – a way to make it highly lethal to a specific target population and relatively harmless to others.
Second point: The Wuhan virus shows signs of having been engineered. This paper says there are four sequences in the Wuhan virus’s spike protein that are suspiciously similar to those of the AIDS virus. The abstract observes the similarities are “unlikely to be fortuitous in nature”.
Third point: Laboratory facilities that are graded for the most dangerous category of research into infectious diseases are called P4 or BSL4 labs. If you are doing research into biological warfare, a P4 lab is where you are doing it, because it’s too dangerous to pursue anywhere else.
Worldwide, there are approximately 55 such laboratories. The U.S. has 15 of them. The People’s Republic of China has one. It’s the Wuhan Institute of Virology and yes, it’s located at geographical ground zero of the outbreak.
Awfully damn coincidental, isn’t that?
Let’s review. Virus shows signs of engineering. There’s a P4 lab dealing in virus research at ground zero of the epidemic. And the virus exhibits weirdly sharp selectivity about who it will infect and kill.
There are problems with the bioweapon theory. One is the obvious question of why the PRC would design a bioweapon genetically targeted at its own people. Another is that the Wuhan virus is missing some traits you’d want in a production bioweapon, like much higher lethality and a reliable vaccine. If the PRC had one they would surely have deployed it by now.
But there is a plausible theory that fits all these facts. It’s this: the Wuhan virus was not a deliberate release of a production bioweapon, it was an accidental release of research in progress – the kind of nasty “Ooops!” that P4 containment is designed to prevent. Someone screwed up big time.
And why targeted on East Asians? Possibly no reason at all other than they were experimenting with genetic targeting and it was intended as a step towards a virus that could selectively target gweilos. Or Japanese. Or Indians.
But I can think of a blood-chillingly good reason for the Communists to keep a shot like this in their locker. And that reason is the island of Taiwan. Release the virus there, wait for it to do its thing, then when the Taiwanese are screaming for help offer humanitarian aid. Delivered by the People’s Liberation Army.
No, I do not think this was intended for Hong Kong. The PRC leadership are not gamblers; I don’t think they’d be down with releasing a bioweapon in a city that has close overland links with the Chinese industrial heartland. But Taiwan is an island; if the plague got too hot for available countermeasures you could just interdict the island until it cooled down.
A final note: if the Chinese people become convinced that the PRC government brewed up this virus, it’s done. Kaput. Serious plagues are historically considered a sign that a dynasty has lost the Mandate of Heaven anyway, and the self-infliction of the wound would make the legitimacy collapse harder. Every couple of centuries there are popular revolts severe enough to topple dynasties; we could see one over this.