By Petar Stoyanov
Petar Stoyanov is a Bulgarian journalist and video producer with 15 years of experience in a number of print and television media outlets. Over the years, Petar has covered topics related to science, technology, business, culture, and the environment. He is the managing editor of HiComm magazine.
The day is March 11, 2020. The World Health Organization (WHO) officially declares a SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, and Bulgaria is only a few days away from a national state of emergency. There are only six confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country. While fears are growing, most citizens can hardly imagine what will happen worldwide.
Information is still chaotic because the virus is relatively unknown and the crisis has yet to hit Europe. However, this does not discourage Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov from publicly speculating about the origin of the new coronavirus during an extraordinary government meeting. He alleges that we will never find out which “scumbag” released the virus.
A conspiracy on the loose
In this case, the Bulgarian Prime Minister did not say anything original. This ‘infodemic’ concerning COVID-19 is enormous, proportional in size to the unprecedented interest in the topic worldwide. The largest and most significant health crisis in a century had caught the attention of most of the world’s population. Against this background, the theory of the laboratory-created virus attracted supporters at the very beginning of the epidemic — from political players to ordinary fans of conspiracy theories.
Rumours about the origin of the disease varied from a hostile biological attack by various states (or even secret societies in them) to an accidental error caused by extreme negligence. Maybe the virus was invented to control the population, to deal with America’s enemies, or stop the rise of China? In Iran and the Arab world, the politicization of this subject has been accompanied by propaganda blaming Israel for the development of the pathogen. In India, the largest Muslim minority came under attack after a community gathering in violation of anti-epidemic measures created a COVID-19 cluster. This event later led to accusations that the virus was deliberately spread.
For the first time in generations, we faced an omnipresent threat that we couldn’t deal with quickly — due to its long incubation period, asymptomatic transmission, and the lack of both treatment and vaccines — it left people so shocked and frightened that some were more likely to believe in malicious interference.
The misleading information campaign did not overlook the background of the virus. The geographical proximity between the so-called ‘wet market’ in Wuhan, originally regarded as the origin of the infection, and the Wuhan Institute of Virology prompted a wave of conspiracies. The fact that this is the first and only research centre in China with the highest level of biosecurity — the laboratory studies pathogens considered particularly dangerous (such as Ebola and Lassa fever) — has been highlighted as a supposed proof of many of these narratives. There is currently no evidence to support such a theory. Scientists believe that the virus was transmitted to humans after a natural mutation in animals while the market in Wuhan only contributed to the spread of the disease.
For politicians, the sci-fi plot based on the idea that the virus was man-made served as a way to absolve themselves of responsibility for ill-timed measures or to respond to accusations from other countries, which in itself further encouraged people’s imagination.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman was among the first to spark this high-level discussion. On social media, Zhao Lijian suggested that the virus may have been imported into China months before the official outbreak when US troops visited the Military World Games held in Wuhan in October 2019. The diplomat went so far as to ask his American colleagues to disclose the whereabouts of ‘patient zero’. Lijian’s reaction was based merely on assumptions by the US administration that the first cases of COVID-19 in the United States occurred earlier than originally announced.
The tone slightly changed after scientists proved that all known strains of the virus at the time were somehow related to the original epidemic in Hubei Province. A number of Chinese diplomats acknowledged that the virus had spread around the world from China, but also insisted that this does not necessarily mean that the country is the source of the infection.
During the first three months of 2020, the White House was also actively spreading falsehoods. At the height of the health crisis in New York, US President Donald Trump began referring to the infection as ‘the Chinese virus’ and demanded that China be held accountable. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo often used the term ‘Wuhan virus’. Pompeo was one of the most active supporters of the theory that SARS-CoV-2 came from the Wuhan lab. In early May, he spoke of “significant” evidence in support of his theory but failed to present any such evidence to the media. And US intelligence agencies decided to announce publicly that they will be investigating this rumour.
Reinforcing the White House position, conservative media in the United States paid serious attention to the possibility that the virus was artificially created and let loose by the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The topic also resonated in the French media, where experts were worried about the assistance provided by France in setting up the first Chinese laboratory in this class.
The WHO was quick to refute these rumours, calling them speculative, and sources from the so-called ‘Five Eyes’ (an intelligence alliance between the United States, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada) also denied having any evidence that the virus had been leaked from the Wuhan lab.
However, considering the high profile of the sources of information, this whole exchange of accusations was widely covered in the media, which likely impacted public opinion. In late March, 23% of Americans and 17% of French said the virus was made in a lab, according to a study by the French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP).
The usual suspects
Misleading information didn’t just come from the two largest economies — the United States and China — who have had rocky political and economic relations in recent years. In mid-March, The Guardian reported that, according to a report by the European Union, pro-Kremlin media were spreading misinformation to exacerbate the public health crisis in the West. The European External Action Service identified 80 different examples in the two months prior to March 16th (by mid-May, they were close to 500, according to EUvsDisinfo).
One of the conspiracy theories broadcast on Sputnik radio drew a parallel between the coronavirus and the nineteenth-century Opium Wars, implying that Britain and unnamed “international organizations” were trying to interfere in China’s internal affairs just as the British Empire had forced the country to open its markets and cede territory centuries ago. Russian Ren TV showed a video making an unsupported claim that the virus may be a biological weapon deployed by US special forces in China.
While conducting a study along with the European Commission, experts from the Crime and Security Research Institute at Cardiff University observed an evolution in the tactics of pro-Kremlin sources. Instead of inventing their own theories, they are reinforcing conspiracies, spread by others — China, Iran and far-right organizations in the United States. “This tactic allows them to avoid the accusation of creating disinformation themselves, claiming instead that they are merely reporting what others are saying,” the report stated.
Russia has strongly denied the allegations. “We’re talking again about some unfounded allegations which in the current situation are probably the result of an anti-Russian obsession,” said Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Bulgarian mirror
Traditionally, unfounded theories from Russian sources have often penetrated Bulgarian media environment. This pandemic is no exception. The Russian-based NewsFront site published a series of articles in March and April directly claiming or alluding to a key US role in the spread of the virus. They discussed the theory that biological weapons have been historically used to empower the United States’ “aggressive imperialism”. NewsFront even compared COVID-19 to the smallpox-contaminated blankets supposedly given by colonists to Native Americans.
Another conspiracy theory is that the virus has been genetically programmed to affect only a certain ethnic group (at the time of publication, most COVID-19 cases were registered in China). NewsFront is among the sites spreading fake news in Bulgaria, according to the European External Action Service. An investigation by Dnevnik, a Bulgarian news platform, found that the publishers have ties to the Russian state, and journalists from the Novorussia news agency may have played a role in the 2016 coup attempt in Montenegro.
Speculations that coronavirus was artificially created gradually made their way to traditional media. In an extensive interview with BTA, a Bulgarian state-owned news agency, Russian professor Dmitry Edelev answered a question whether this is a “synthetically invented virus” by saying that: “Many scientists around the world and leading virologists in Britain and Russia, officially claim that it is an artificial virus. It has all the characteristics of an absolute biological weapon, and an extremely good quality biological weapon.” The interview was republished by bTV, Darik News, and other Bulgarian websites.
These examples once again highlight the important role of reporters in selecting sources and verifying information. When news organisations don’t adhere to basic journalistic standards, they can easily find themselves in the awkward position of giving a platform to supporters of controversial and unproven claims.
Why the virus wasn’t artificially created
Ultimately, China still owes the world an explanation and must provide additional transparency for the initial spread of SARS-CoV-2. However, we can be reasonably confident that the virus was not artificially created. Scientists have been able to determine this without being influenced by political bias.
The results of the genome analysis of the new coronavirus are clear: it has a 96% similarity to that of the RaTG13 coronavirus found in bats in Hubei Province. However, the structure of the protein which the virus uses to penetrate human cells is different. At the same time, it is 99% similar to that of the coronavirus extracted from pangolins, a mammal found in Asia. This leads to a reasonable assumption that SARS-CoV-2 is a recombination of the two animal viruses. The mechanism by which this occurs in coronaviruses has been observed and described in the past. Comparisons with naturally occurring zoonoses, infections and diseases transmitted from animals to humans, are regarded as a reliable way of tracing the origin of emerging strains.
In addition, there are indisputable scientific methods to detect genetic modifications. Genetic engineering as a branch of science is in its infancy and experts can clearly identify cases of artificially modified genomes. In SARS-CoV-2, such precise ‘cuts’ are lacking, leading scientists to conclude that the virus has occurred naturally.
Yet people still believe
Paradoxically, once it has gained widespread popularity, misleading information is difficult to erase from people’s minds even when the audience is presented with irrefutable proof that a statement is false.
“Conspiracies offer an easy explanation for complex processes,” Evelina Slavkova of Trend Research Center told a Bulgarian television channel. According to a survey by this polling agency, despite evidence to the contrary, by the second half of April, 53% of Bulgarians believed that coronavirus is a biological weapon, and 46% believed that the disease was created artificially to benefit pharmaceutical companies.
“The success of conspiracy theories about Covid-19 reveals much about our visceral need to reassure ourselves by inventing simplistic explanations for terrifying natural phenomena,” said Eric Muraille, a research professor at the Université libre de Bruxelles.
In his analysis, Muraille also refers to the so-called ‘Russell’s teapot’. This theory, proposed by the philosopher Bertrand Russell, challenges the idea that it is up to the sceptic to refute the unverifiable basis of something and affirms that the burden of proof falls instead on the believer.
Here’s how Russell explains it: if someone claims that a teapot orbits the Sun somewhere between Earth and Mars, it would be pointless to expect people to believe them just because they can’t prove their claim to be false.
In the case of SARS-CoV-2, there is no proof that the virus was deliberately made in a laboratory. Conspiracy theories are founded merely on indirect coincidences, such as the fact that there is a top-class bio-developmental institute in the same city.
Muraille raises an interesting question: which hypothesis is more intolerable; the one about crazy scientists backed by a foreign power attacking our modern society, or the alternative that new epidemics emerge as a result of increasing human activity and the subsequent destruction of ecosystems. “In the first case, it would be easy to end the nightmare. In the second, it is our way of life and our economic system that must change,” the researcher said.