Investigation of conspiracy narratives: Virus mutations and the US origin of COVID-19

Research on virus mutations has been misinterpreted while conspiracies and propaganda spread in China.

“Alternative” theories abound

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian suggested on Twitter in early March the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, originated in the United States.

The claim was based on an earlier article published by a known conspiracy website in Canada called Global Research that alleges there is “evidence” indicating the virus came from the U.S. (it has since been taken down).

On the same day, the Chinese Embassy in South Africa retweeted Zhao and China’s state-controlled media followed suit. The Global Times and People’s Daily, for example, repeated the claim in their news stories along with other theories that imply France or Italy could also be the origin of the virus.

In China, the U.S.-origin narrative is not a fringe theory.

Many articles in Chinese cast doubt on the origin of COVID-19

Searching information with keywords like “疫情发源地” (origin of the epidemic), the country’s largest search engine Baidu shows many news stories indicating COVID-19 could have started in the U.S.

An article published by popular news portal Toutiao is one such example.

It links the COVID-19 outbreak to a “mysterious pneumonia” that emerged among many young e-cigarette users in the U.S. in 2019 to assert the coronavirus was already spreading before it appeared in other countries.

The English-language Global Times reported a U.S. military cyclist could be the “patient zero” who brought the disease to China during the Military World Games in Wuhan in October 2019.

This well-known conspiracy theory claims COVID-19 was an American bioweapon. Although it has been debunked, according to Foreign Policy, the narrative spread to other countries including Indonesia and Cuba.

Dimsum Daily, a Hong Kong-based media outlet, published another theory maintaining that a Czech molecular biologist found some mutations in the virus that are not of natural origins and believed it came from a lab in the U.S. This claim has also been debunked.

China’s state-owned English-language broadcaster CGTN, as well as the country’s ambassadors and diplomatic staff, constantly push the U.S.-origin narrative outside the country. Some talking points are also picked up by state-run media in anti-U.S., pro-China nations like Iran and Russia.

Virus mutations and scientific ‘evidence’

In April, research on viral mutations became another contentious talking point.

For instance, a YouTube video posted by CGTN in early April titled “Scientists map COVID-19’s journey across the world” illustrates research by the University of Cambridge and claims the study implies the original strain of the coronavirus was found in America and Australia.

 

What appear to be scientific explanations have trended across Chinese social media and messaging apps. News stories have cited the same research and allegations — for example, in an article published by a Chinese-language website in Australia called Melbourne Today.

In response, one of the researchers from the University of Cambridge, Peter Forster, added a statement on April 30 to the original document that reads:

“Our analysis published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) looked at the early spread of the virus in humans. Our analysis was not designed to investigate rumours suggesting the virus itself came from outside China. It is a misinterpretation of our research to suggest that the novel coronavirus originated outside China.”

Despite this clarification, the evolution of virus mutations came to be another common theme for the origin narratives.

Annie Lab looked into this series of graphics circulating on Chinese language social media alongside interpretations that they contain scientific evidence to prove the origin is not China. The gist of the claims goes like this:

  • The more virus mutations a country has, the more likely it is the origin. Since the graph shows China having the least number of mutations, the virus began anywhere but in China.
  • The U.S. and European countries have recorded more mutations. One particular strain from the Washington State with an unusually high number of mutations was mysteriously removed from the chart, indicating there is a concerted effort to hide the origin, which is likely the U.S.
Virus evolutionary (phylogenetic) tree graphs are misused as ‘evidence’

These theories are often shared with scientific terms like genomic epidemiology; many internet users seem confused but convinced. Online discussions in Chinese surrounding these images appear to be full of pseudo-scientific commentaries and condescending remarks.

The charts in question are virus evolutionary (phylogenetic) tree graphs from Nextstrain, a platform dedicated to crowdsourcing virus data from around the world.

Annie Lab talked to Emma Hodcroft, a Nextstrain researcher and post-doctoral fellow based in the Biozentrum Center for Life Sciences at the University of Basel.

Another Nextstrain researcher Louise Moncla also helped us clarify what the charts actually show.

Claim: A strain USA/WA-UW45/2020 from Washington State was removed from the Nextstrain database because its high number of mutations “exposed” the true origin of the coronavirus.

Fact: The strain was removed from the database due to a sequencing error. When researchers extract genetic data from a virus, they need to copy a minuscule portion of the virus genome and replicate it many times so they can measure it.

If there is a small human error during the replication process, that mistake would compound itself and may result in what looks like an unusually high number of mutations.

Patterns of sequencing error and natural random virus mutations look different. Natural mutations are random, but in the case of USA/WA-UW45/2020, a chain of what appear to be “mutations” are connected side by side, indicating a sequencing mistake has been made. Natural random mutation would be more scattered in the genome.

Furthermore, researchers have discovered that the novel coronavirus evolves at a consistent rate of around two mutations per month. Viruses, in general, have been found to mutate at a consistent rate.

The removed strain, USA/WA-UW45/2020, did not match the mutation rate of the other samples taken at the same time. This suggests that such a result was not due to natural random mutation but to sequencing error.

Claim: Because strains from the U.S. and European countries have more virus mutations than those from China, these charts prove the virus originated outside of China.

Fact: Science actually tells us the opposite. The initial versions of the virus would have relatively fewer mutations. The gene trees, in fact, show China as the “root” with the least number of mutations, making it clear that this is where the virus emerged.

As time passes and the virus spreads outside of China, the number of mutations would increase while it jumps from host to host. The genes mutate further during virus reproduction.

Claim: The virus originated six months ago in the U.S. as a less infectious and deadly version before mutating into a deadlier version which was brought to China.

Fact: The Seattle Flu Study sampled thousands of people with flu symptoms in the U.S. starting in early January and tested them for the novel coronavirus. If the coronavirus had been circulating in the country but appearing only as milder, flu-like symptoms, these early samples would have tested positive.

But there were no positive coronavirus results for samples before Feb. 24. The first positive sample from local community transmission had a similar viral structure to the first diagnosed U.S. case in mid-January, which was imported from Wuhan, China.

This research does not show the coronavirus was circulating widely in the U.S. before Jan. 19, even as a milder strain with flu-like symptoms.

Annie Lab also asked Hodcroft about another debunked theory shared widely among Chinese-speaking internet users along with the virus mutation narratives.

The story claims there is an “uncanny similarity” between the novel coronavirus and an HIV virus strain, as suggested by a non-peer-reviewed paper written by researchers in India.

The paper is one of the sources of a conspiracy that the novel coronavirus must have been made in a lab because it contains proteins that are similar to HIV and could have been inserted into the virus.

There is even an audio recording from someone purported to be a Chinese doctor saying the coronavirus acts like the HIV virus and develops like AIDS in an infected person.

The claim is unfounded. Hodcroft says it is misleading to note that the so-called similarity of the novel coronavirus to HIV was “unlikely to be fortuitous in nature” without mentioning that more than 200 other viruses also had this similarity.

According to her, such reasoning is akin to taking a few words from a book and then searching for that same phrase in other books to call out plagiarism even though it is a common phrase.