As the coronavirus outbreak continues to spread rampantly around the world, a number of conspiracy theories about the deadly virus' origin have started to surface – one of which suggests that the virus was man-made by an American scientist who later sold it to China.
Charles Lieber's links to Wuhan
In January, the chair of Harvard University's chemistry department was charged with lying to the US federal authorities about payments he allegedly received from the Wuhan's University of Technology and concealing his participation in China's Thousand Talents Plan, a state-run programme that recognises and recruits leading international experts in scientific research.
Given the fact that the coronavirus originated in Wuhan, conspiracy theorists did not waste any time in pointing out that Lieber was arrested on suspicion of playing a part in creating COVID-19. The speculation was further fuelled by comments made by Arkansas senator Tom Cotton, who said on Fox News in February that the question of whether the coronavirus was released by a lab in Wuhan was one "we at least have to ask."
Chinese citizens arrested for smuggling biological samples to China?
The rumours started gaining more traction after the US law enforcement detained two Chinese nationals around the same time as Lieber's arrest. One of the Chinese citizens had reportedly been caught smuggling vials containing "sensitive biological samples" back to China. However, fact-checking website Snopes.com debunked the theory that Lieber was arrested for reasons relating to COVID-19 and that is no connection between the arrests.
"The DOJ [Department of Justice] announced three separate arrests in January 2020," Snopes says. "The first was Lieber. The second involved Yanqing Ye, a lieutenant in the Chinese army accused of stealing US research. And third was Zaosong Zheng, who stole 21 vials of biological research."
"While these three arrests all involve people lying about their ties to China, they took place at different universities and are not related," Snopes said in its article, before adding that the contents of the vials had nothing to do with COVID-19, and were, in actuality, cancer cells.
Experts weigh in
The theory that the coronavirus pandemic is a man-made crisis is one that experts have been quick to reject. In a joint statement published in the medical journal Lancet in February, a group of 27 scientists said: "We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin."
"Scientists from multiple countries have published and analysed genomes of the causative agent, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), and they overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife," they added.
They concluded their statement saying, "Conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumours, and prejudice that jeopardise our global collaboration in the fight against this virus."