Skip to main content

Was the Coronavirus Outbreak Caused by a Lab Accident?

It's possible, says a microbiology expert, who meanwhile dismisses any rumors the virus was genetically engineered.
  • Author:
  • Publish date:

Did the Wuhan coronavirus originate from a wild animal market -- or a laboratory accident?

TheStreet posed the question of a top microbiology expert who said either was possible. 

But, he cautioned, any idea that this particular virus was "created" in a lab can be easily tossed in the wastebasket. 

"Based on the genome sequence and properties of the virus, there is no basis to suspect the virus was engineered," said Prof. Richard H. Ebright, the laboratory director at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology and a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University.

It is important to distinguish, however, between the possibility that the virus was engineered, said Ebright in an email exchange with TheStreet, and the possibility that the virus entered the human population through a laboratory accident.

The first scenario, he said, can be "dismissed," but the latter, cannot.

The available data are consistent with either the virus entering the human population as a natural occurrence, he said, or a laboratory accident -- "which is exactly what happened in the second, third, and fourth entries of SARS-Cov into the human population in 2003-2004."

The newly discovered Wuhan coronavirus is one of many coronaviruses that are commonly found in camels, bats and other animals. It's also included among several that have become contagious among humans – including recently SARS and the far deadlier MERS, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. The Wuhan coronavirus is believed to have started its spread to people sometime in December in central China from a wild animal market.

Scroll to Continue

TheStreet Recommends

Because that bat coronavirus and other closely related bat coronaviruses are known to have been present in nature – such as in a cave in Yunnan province – the first human infection could have occurred as an accident of nature, Ebright said.

But he said, it is possible that the virus could have been leaked from a laboratory that was studying the virus, too.

“Because the bat coronavirus RaTG13 and closely related bat coronaviruses also are known to have been present in a lab," he said, specifically in the coronavirus collection at Wuhan Institute of Virology. "The first human infection also could have occurred as a lab accident.”

The institute claimed over the weekend it was not the source of the outbreak, according to a story in

But Ebright also criticized the "tens of millions of dollars" spent by the U.S. and China on bat coronavirus surveillance and other bat coronavirus research. 

This type of work, he said, has "increased -- not decreased -- risks of outbreaks." 

In addition, he said, the work has provided no information useful for combating outbreaks.

"If the research funds spent on bat coronavirus surveillance research and bat coronavirius gain-of-function research instead been had spent on research on coronavirus vaccines and coronavirus antiviral drugs, there might now be effective countermeasures to combat outbreaks."