Coronavirus: US senator keeps repeating disputed conspiracy theory about virus

Republican senator acknowledges there is no evidence

Paulina Firozi
Monday 17 February 2020 16:05 GMT
Eight patients who tested positive for coronavirus released from hospital

US Senator Tom Cotton repeated a fringe theory suggesting that the ongoing spread of a coronavirus is connected to research in the disease-ravaged epicenter of Wuhan, China.

Mr Cotton referenced a laboratory in the city, the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory, in an interview on Fox News’ “Sunday Morning Futures.” He said the lab was near a market some scientists initially thought was a starting point for the virus’s spread.

“We don’t know where it originated, and we have to get to the bottom of that,” Senator Cotton said. “We also know that just a few miles away from that food market is China’s only biosafety level 4 super laboratory that researches human infectious diseases.”

Yet Mr Cotton acknowledged that there is no evidence that the disease originated at the lab. Instead, he suggested it’s necessary to ask Chinese authorities about the possibility, fanning the embers of a conspiracy theory that has been repeatedly debunked by experts.

“Now, we don’t have evidence that this disease originated there, but because of China’s duplicity and dishonesty from the beginning, we need to at least ask the question to see what the evidence says,” Mr Cotton said. “And China right now is not giving any evidence on that question at all.”

Mr Cotton is referring to a well-known lab in Wuhan, a “Cellular Level Biosafety Level 4” facility with a high level of operational security that works on researching dangerous pathogens.

In response to Mr Cotton’s remarks, as well as in previous interviews with The Washington Post, numerous experts dismissed the possibility the coronavirus may be man-made.

“There’s absolutely nothing in the genome sequence of this virus that indicates the virus was engineered,” said Richard Ebright, a professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University. “The possibility this was a deliberately released bioweapon can be firmly excluded.”

Vipin Narang, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said it is “highly unlikely” the general population was exposed to a virus through an accident at a lab.

“We don’t have any evidence for that,” said Prof Narang, a political science professor with a background in chemical engineering.

“It’s a skip in logic to say it’s a bioweapon that the Chinese developed and intentionally deployed, or even unintentionally deployed,” Prof Narang said.

The Daily Mail was one of the first to suggest a connection between the coronavirus and the laboratory in Wuhan. Later, the Washington Times suggested in a headline that “Coronavirus may have originated in lab linked to China’s biowarfare program.”’

Sunday was not the first time Mr Cotton has suggested the virus may have originated in the Wuhan lab. Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai pushed back on such suggestions in an interview with CBS News’ “Face the Nation” this month.

“It’s true that a lot is still unknown,” Mr Cui said when host Margaret Brennan asked about Mr Cotton’s claims. “But it’s very harmful, it’s very dangerous, to stir up suspicion, rumours, and spread them among the people. For one thing, this will create panic. Another thing is that it will fan up racial discrimination, xenophobia, all these things that will really harm our joint efforts to combat the virus.”

Mr Cotton responded to the ambassador in a pair of tweets following the interview, referencing the Wuhan lab. “Where did it start? We don’t know. But burden of proof is on you & fellow communists,” he wrote.

After Senator Cotton’s most recent remarks, Professor Narang said, “These kinds of conspiracy theories are unhelpful.”

“I don’t think it’s particularly helpful and it’s borderline irresponsible to – and it’s without evidence, so at this point it’s a conspiracy theory – peddle it,” he said. “Cotton should spend more time funding the agencies in the United States that can help contain and combat the virus rather than trying to assign blame.”

The Washington Post

The headline of this article was amended on July 26, 2021, to remove the word ‘debunked’ and replace it with ‘disputed’, as there has as yet been no definitive proof about the origins of the virus. The Washington Post has also amended its article.

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