A theory I saw about how COVID may have escaped from the Wuhan lab

I’m not saying I believe COVID was made in a lab, although we do all know that it was being researched in and around Wuhan and this is a not-unlikely IMNSHO theory as to how the virus may have escaped.

Here goes.

This person believes that a lab worker may have attempted to supplement their income by selling sacrificed lab animals to a wet market vendor or other butcher (without, of course, telling them the truth about where the animals came from) and things went from there.

It sounds as plausible to me as anything else I’ve heard.

…which specific part of the theory do you think sounds plausible? Was it the “lab worker needing to supplement their income part?” The “sacrificed lab animals to the wet market part?” Or the “things went from there” part?

Is this your theory? What evidence do you have to support this theory?

So it wasn’t made in a lab, but it escaped from a lab? Huh?

Not made in a lab, but researched in a lab, OK?

I didn’t say I believed it; I just wondered what the hivemind here might think about that.

It’s a lot better than that crazy idea that a lab worker accidentally contracted COVID but was asymptomatic and unknowingly spread the disease in the community. I mean how absurd would that be?

The WHO investigation team has largely dismissed the idea that the virus came from a lab.


At a press briefing on 9 February in Wuhan, China, members of the WHO team reported conclusions from their month-long investigation into the origin of the coronavirus, which was first reported as cases of ‘viral pneumonia’ in Wuhan in December 2019. The researchers largely discounted the controversial theory that the virus accidentally leaked from a laboratory, and suggested that SARS-CoV-2 probably first passed to people from an animal — already a leading hypothesis among researchers.

…you don’t believe it, but “It sounds as plausible to me as anything else [you’ve] heard.”

Again where did you hear this from? What is your source?

I’m guessing “someone on the internet”.

It was not engineered. We know that, because genetic engineering leaves evidence in the sequence.

But it’s possible that the dangerous form that evolved in the wild was in the research lab.

“This person believes” means presumably that somebody just made this up, they have no evidence. Do they know anything at all about circumstances and procedures at the lab that make it circumstantially plausible, or did they just pull it out of their ass?

This is a BSL-4 lab that handles stuff like Ebola. These people aren’t just a bunch of peasants, it’s not as though they aren’t going to have strict procedures. It’s possible, but I’m not buying that it’s more plausible than a wild animal without more.

How is it that we know this is always true?

I did not claim that it is always true, if by “always” you mean the genetic manipulation of any nucleotide sequence in any organism with any technology that we can reasonably foresee in the next 50 years.

But this virus did not arise through genetic manipulation. This was immediately clear, see for example this Nature paper from March last year.


For background, it is an extremely difficult problem to predict protein structure (and hence protein function) from amino acid sequence. As it happens, there was a major breakthrough just a few months ago.

To return to the first paper, with the background that current protein structure-function technology is limited to predicting the effects of modifications to known structures:

In SARS-Cov-2 the structure of the Receptor Binding Domain of the spike protein is not a predictable higher-affinity derivative of other coronaviruses, so the mutations are not plausible candidates that would have been introduced if humans had deliberately manipulated an existing virus. It is a novel structural solution that could only plausibly have been found by natural selection.

There are several other supporting technical lines of evidence described in the paper, all of which support the origin of the virus through many generations of mutation and natural selection in the wild.

I heard that it “bumped into” someone and stole their key-card, then snuck out during a shift change.

I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure whether or not the virus came from a lab. If it did there has already been a multi-level coverup of the events in China, and we are unlikely to be able to sort the fact from the fiction in the future. Even if it did not come from a lab I’m sure that a lot of information has disappeared from labs that could potentially have been the source which will always raise suspicions. Proving it came from a wet market will be extremely difficult because the initial people contracting the virus likely did not come down with severe symptoms but still could have spread it widely.

Ascribing the virus, with no evidence whatsoever, to

[…] a lab worker may have attempted to supplement their income by selling sacrificed lab animals to a wet market vendor or other butcher (without, of course, telling them the truth about where the animals came from) and things went from there.

seems about on par with warning people who live near Asian neighborhoods to keep their cats indoors. It says more about the people who make up and/or spread the rumor than anything else.

Okay, I’ve read the paper. And your background explanations. And I still don’t see how either one proves that if the virus had been genetically manipulated we’d know it. In fact, that seems like a hard thing to prove at all.

No space lasers, then. Okay.

Here’s my question: what the fuck difference does it make now?

Molecular biologists with expertise in the field do see, and the findings in this paper have not been disputed by other experts. If you don’t understand the evidence, and don’t have anything of substance to add, just repeating your claims of what you think “seems” may be the case really isn’t worth much.

I’ll respond to specific technical questions about the content of the paper if you have them.

In short, yes; some people were speculating how and where it might have originated, and this was a theory that actually made some halfway sense to me. I’m OK with people disagreeing with me, mmmkay?

This builds on it even more. Thanks, TriPolar.

The paper says:

While the analyses above suggest that SARS-CoV-2 may bind human ACE2 with high affinity, computational analyses predict that the interaction is not ideal7 and that the RBD sequence is different from those shown in SARS-CoV to be optimal for receptor binding7,11. Thus, the high-affinity binding of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein to human ACE2 is most likely the result of natural selection on a human or human-like ACE2 that permits another optimal binding solution to arise. This is strong evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is not the product of purposeful manipulation.

It is improbable that SARS-CoV-2 emerged through laboratory manipulation of a related SARS-CoV-like coronavirus. As noted above, the RBD of SARS-CoV-2 is optimized for binding to human ACE2 with an efficient solution different from those previously predicted7,11. Furthermore, if genetic manipulation had been performed, one of the several reverse-genetic systems available for betacoronaviruses would probably have been used19. However, the genetic data irrefutably show that SARS-CoV-2 is not derived from any previously used virus backbone20. Instead, we propose two scenarios that can plausibly explain the origin of SARS-CoV-2…:

That’s what passes for proof these days? Probabilities, proposals, and plausibility? I mean, you spoke in much more certain terms.