Coronavirus leaked from a lab? Blame capitalism, not China

Laboratory incidents are common, but they do not cause pandemics on their own.

Wuhan lab
Workers in protective suits examine specimens inside a laboratory following an outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China on February 6, 2020 [File: Reuters]

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in the Chinese city of Wuhan, there has been as much research as conjecture about its origins. This issue became extremely politicised in the “new cold war” between the United States and China.

US President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Republican Senator Tom Cotton have all suggested that the novel coronavirus came from a lab in Wuhan. In response, Chinese government officials have claimed the virus may have originated in a lab in the US.

While this blame game continues to make headlines in international media, behind the smoke and mirrors lurks the real cause of the pandemic – a common problem shared by the US, China, and the rest of the world – capitalism.

Despite uncertainty about the origins of COVID-19, there are a few things we do know. The new coronavirus’s genomic sequence was identified in early January, and soon an international scientific consensus emerged that it evolved originally in bats, then likely jumped over to humans through an intermediary species. 

Scientific research is pointing towards pangolins, tree shrews, or ferrets as the likely bridge between bats and humans. There is no scientific evidence that the virus was deliberately manufactured in any laboratory. In fact, the US intelligence community has repeatedly stated they believe the origin of the new virus is natural.

But how did this natural spillover cause an outbreak in Wuhan? The “blame China” rhetoric now points to a possible accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Scientists there research coronaviruses from bats, and unless new epidemiological data emerges, it may be impossible to disprove a theory involving a lab accident. But even if we assume a lab leak, is blaming China for it the right way to think about the problem?

Laboratory accidents involving dangerous diseases have occurred many times all around the world, including the US. In 2014, the Food and Drug Administration found six vials of smallpox accidentally abandoned in an insecure storage room. That same year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention accidentally sent viable anthrax spores to three insecure labs, possibly exposing researchers to the deadly bacteria. Then in 2015, the Pentagon accidentally shipped live anthrax to nine states and even to South Korea. Thankfully, those accidents did not cause any deaths, but there have been others that have turned out deadly. 

According to a study by Karen Byers of the American Biological Safety Association, there were at least 1,141 instances of “laboratory acquired infections” reported worldwide between 1979 and 2005, some of which have resulted in deaths.

Several accidents with smallpox in the United Kingdom killed three people in the 1970s. An influenza virus leak in China caused an outbreak in the 1970s which also spread outside the country and caused a number of deaths. An epidemic of encephalitis in Venezuela and Colombia that killed at least 311 people in 1995 was likely caused by a laboratory incident.

In 2003 and 2004, lab workers in Singapore, Taiwan, and mainland China, were accidentally infected with SARS, spreading the disease to seven people and causing one death after the epidemic had already been contained.

Laboratory accidents are an unfortunate but unavoidable consequence of research on highly infectious and deadly diseases. No country is immune to them.

The key then is to understand why such diseases with pandemic potential emerge in the first place, and how to prevent them. Here, scientific consensus clearly points towards structural issues that affect the whole world.

First, rapid urbanisation and increased mobility make it more likely for a local outbreak to become a pandemic. Wuhan is a major transportation hub and China is now at the centre of many global supply chains. Both of these factors contributed to the rapid spread of the coronavirus.

The risk of new diseases jumping between animals and humans has increased with the loss of natural habitat for wildlife, and new infrastructures reaching deep into forests and mountains. The same holds for the trade in wild animals, which has flourished over the past few decades, boosted by growing consumerism.

Wild animals like pangolins, which are used for food and traditional medicine, were being smuggled into China at an alarming rate before the pandemic. At the same time, in an effort to alleviate rural poverty, the Chinese government promoted market-oriented breeding and e-commerce of some wild animals. These practices increased close and potentially infection-transmitting interactions between wild animals and humans in wet markets, like Wuhan’s, where the novel coronavirus is believed to have originated.

Industrial-scale poultry and livestock have also increased the risk of new zoonotic diseases which could cause pandemics. As the evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace has argued, capitalist agribusiness “offers the exact means by which pathogens can evolve the most virulent and infectious phenotypes”.

Destruction of forests and other habitats, consumerism, trade in wildlife and industrial-scale animal breeding are not unique to China. They are global phenomena. 

If this pandemic originated in China, the next one may break out in Brazil, Nigeria, the US or anywhere else really.

Trading blame for this tragedy may be politically expedient for world leaders and the idea of a lab leak may come in handy, but none of this is really helping the world cope better with it. The real problems that cause new diseases to emerge and trigger pandemics are global, and much more intractable and concerning than lab accidents alone.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.