Comment: COVID crisis captivates conspiracy theorists

Some groups and activists are wrongly claiming that modern agriculture is responsible for the rise of viruses that originate in animals and migrate to humans

Cornell Alliance for Science – In the face of a global catastrophe like COVID-19, it’s only natural that frightened, anxious people try to ascribe blame. The problems arise when they demonize the wrong villain — especially for ideological or political motives.

Most recently, some have begun trying to blame this novel strain of coronavirus on genetic engineering and modern agricultural practices — a stance that defies the science.

The most vivid example of this thinking was a conspiratorial missive published March 26 by Ronnie Cummins, founder and director of the Organic Consumers Association.

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Cummins falsely claimed: “It’s not clear yet whether COVID-19 was weaponized in one of the world’s numerous, and secretive, chemical and biological warfare laboratories… or whether its toxic potency was accelerated by ‘normal’ genetic mutations as it passed from bats and pangolins through humans.”

Actually, there has never been any serious doubt that COVID-19 has entirely natural origins. This was again confirmed scientifically on March 17 when researchers published investigations of the coronavirus’s genome sequence data in the journal Nature Medicine.

As Science Daily reported:

“By comparing the available genome sequence data for known coronavirus strains, we can firmly determine that SARS-CoV-2 originated through natural processes.”

Josie Golding, PhD, epidemics lead at U.K.-based Wellcome Trust, said the findings are “crucially important to bring an evidence-based view to the rumours that have been circulating about the origins of the virus (SARS-CoV-2) causing COVID-19.”

“They conclude that the virus is the product of natural evolution,” Golding adds, “ending any speculation about deliberate genetic engineering.”

But even that strong declaration hasn’t stopped pseudoscientists from publishing outlandish claims in newspapers claiming that COVID-19 is a bioweapon from a military laboratory.

These COVID conspiracy theories don’t just excite the political left. The far-right Washington Times also speculated that the virus was engineered — a theory echoed by United States Sen. Tom Cotton in a February interview on Fox News and repeated by conservative political commentator Rush Limbaugh on his radio show.

In what Julian B. Gewirtz, an international affairs scholar at Harvard, termed “a new, low front,” China has also used social media to advance the totally unsubstantiated theory that the COVID-19 is actually an American disease, spread by U.S. troops that visited Wuhan last fall.

In an article published earlier this month in the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto, attorney Francesco Bilotta took a slightly different tack, blaming genetically modified (GM) crops for the COVID-19 outbreak. In that article, Bilotta falsely claimed that GM crops cause genetic contamination that can allow viruses to proliferate and spread between species.

In a similar vein, other groups and activists are wrongly claiming that modern agriculture is responsible for the rise of viruses that originate in animals and migrate to humans, such as COVID-19. While they correctly assert that the loss of natural habitats and human encroachment into wild areas have contributed to the rise of zoonotic viruses, this is neither new nor due to modern agricultural practices.

In fact, the likely real origin of the virus is one of China’s wild livestock markets, which also likely birthed the SARS coronavirus that panicked the world in 2003.

Though scientists have not definitively identified the origin of COVID-19, they laid out two possible scenarios in their Nature Medicine paper: The virus evolved to its current pathogenic state through natural selection in a non-human host and then jumped to humans, or a non-pathogenic version of the virus jumped from an animal host — perhaps pangolins, civets or ferrets — into humans and then evolved to its current pathogenic state within the human population.

In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, China banned the consumption of terrestrial wildlife to protect public health. But that’s not enough, according to a new Science article published by seven Chinese researchers, because diseases can still be transmitted through the country’s traditional medicine and wildlife farming industries. They are calling for China to take a comprehensive approach to developing wildlife policies based on scientific evidence.

But unless other countries that have similar practices also follow that lead, it may be difficult to prevent another zoonotic virus from wreaking havoc on humans in a future pandemic, sparking a new round of outrageous claims and conspiracy theories.

Joan Conrow has more than 35 years of experience as a journalist and editor. She specializes in environmental issues, biotechnology, and agriculture.

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