The origins of Covid-19: lab-leak or capitalist ecological crisis?

Given the devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic, virologists naturally deem it essential to uncover and understand the origins of SARS-CoV-2. However, the reality of capitalism and imperialist rivalry is already hampering any such investigation as the geopolitical interests of the US and China come into conflict.

Chris Stewart, Socialist Party (ISA in Ireland)

In the past month, the capitalist media in the US have shifted decisively in their reporting around the origins of COVID-19. This comes as President Biden has ordered a 90-day review by the US intelligence agencies of the likelihood that the virus originated in a lab in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

This concerns two main scenarios, one of an accidental leak due to a lapse in laboratory security, previously dismissed as “extremely unlikely” by the World Health Organization, and the other pushed by the Trump administration in its efforts to stoke the conspiracy theory that the virus was created intentionally by China as a bio-weapon.

The latter is overwhelmingly refuted by scientific evidence, while the former, although not completely excluded as a possibility, does not reflect any new evidence, nor does it reflect the research of most virologists. Rather, most virologists still hold that SARS-CoV-2 (the name of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19) emerged from nature, the result of humans and / or livestock coming into contact with infected wild animals.

Given the devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic, virologists naturally deem it essential to uncover and understand the origins of SARS-CoV-2. However, the reality of capitalism and imperialist rivalry is already hampering any such investigation as the geopolitical interests of the US and China come into conflict.

‘New Cold War’ tensions

The “lab-leak” theory is being aggressively pushed by various capitalist states and media corporations as part of an offensive in the “New Cold War”. On the other hand, the CCP regime in China has also played a obstructive role in investigations of COVID-19’s origins.

The Chinese state has suppressed crucial public-health data throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. China has also previously shut down access to investigators and has manipulated data in preliminary investigations into the origins of the virus. The CCP regime’s obsessive censorship and secrecy is what allowed the virus to spread in the first place by suppressing news of the outbreak, driven by the desire to only report the regime’s “successes”. This pressure to banish bad news has increased since the onset of acute US-China tensions three years ago.

Neither the US state nor the Chinese state can be trusted with producing a genuine independent scientific investigation into the origins of COVID-19. Neither state, both utterly beholden to the interests of their national capitalist classes, has any interest in reaching the truth — especially because that would necessarily place the capitalist system which they administer, and its ecologically destructive nature, under the microscope. Rather, they will seek to manipulate the situation for their own geopolitical ends at every stage. Biden’s team have reignited this issue in the knowledge that Beijing will never agree to any investigation it does not have complete control over. Its inevitable refusal will count as an instant US propaganda win — the “proof” the CCP is hiding something.

Capitalism’s ecological crisis and the Field Theory

While a full investigation into COVID-19’s origins may take years, the leading theory that is held by most virologists is known as the “field theory”. This states that SARS-Cov-2 emerged from nature, through a series of “recombination events” whereby the virus evolved by spreading across populations of wild bats, wild food animals, industrial livestock and the human labourers that come into contact with them in South and Central China. Coronaviruses in general are notorious for evolving through these recombination events. This is a similar story to how many previous viruses have spilled over to humans, such as SARS, H1N1 (swine flu) and Ebola. In fact, 60–80% of emerging infectious diseases in humans originated in wildlife.

Many scientists have pointed out that the likelihood of deadly pandemics emerging has drastically increased over the past century, and especially the last few decades.

COVID-19 is not the first deadly pandemic caused by capitalism’s destruction of the environment, nor will it be the last. The obliteration of ecosystems by agribusiness has quadrupled the spread of animal-borne diseases into the human population over the last 50 years. The majority of new disease outbreaks over the last two decades have emerged and spread precisely as a result of capitalism’s profit-driven destruction of nature.

Big agribusiness makes mountains of profit from the brutal exploitation of agricultural workers, as well as through the barbaric conditions of factory farming designed to maximise the turnover of profit. Overcrowding of genetically-engineered animals, literally designed to reach maturity quicker than their wild counterparts on as little feed as possible, compromises the natural immune systems of these animals.

This results in situations whereby viruses entering these animal populations quickly spread and evolve to become extremely virulent pathogens, and often spill over to agricultural workers who are forced to work in unsafe conditions with little-to-no protections.

This is a stark example of what Marx called the “metabolic rift”, where the logic of capitalist commodity production disrupts the complex biogeochemical processes of the natural world.

Climate change and deforestation has forced wild animal populations into closer proximity with industrial farms, particularly as capital has penetrated into the last few primary forest regions on the planet. In the case of COVID-19, one theory is that increased use of pesticides in industrial agriculture may be partly to blame, as insect populations have collapsed forcing infected bat populations closer to humans in their search for food.

As a result, pathogens reach new animal populations leading to viral evolution. Certain wild animal populations are “reservoirs” for these viruses, with some viruses circulating in animals for centuries without being detected by humans. When these viruses come into contact with new host populations (livestock animals, humans etc), “spillover events” occur and the viruses spread to new populations to which can be extremely harmful.

Research has shown that the genetics of SARS-CoV-2 are remarkably similar to other coronaviruses sampled from wild bats in the field, which points strongly towards the field theory. Recent studies have also indicated that it is possible that SARS-CoV-2 had circulated and evolved in some humans (likely agricultural workers in rural areas of China) even prior to its detection in late 2019.

As evolutionary virologist Rob Wallace writes, “all the elements for making SARS-2 are circulating in animal populations out in the field, and — across thousands if not millions of bats, livestock, and undetected human infections combined — in all likelihood in great abundance.”

Flimsy evidence for the lab-leak theory

The “lab-leak” theory is not totally ruled out by virologists, however there is little evidence supporting this theory thus far. The lab-leak theory holds that the coronavirus emerged as the result of a leak from a laboratory in Wuhan, where it was being studied and undergoing “gain-of-function” research.

To be clear, the lab-leak theory that is held by some virologists is distinct from the conspiratorial, anti-scientific ideas of the far-right and those like Donald Trump that have suggested that the coronavirus was synthesized as an intentional bio-weapon that was deliberately leaked by the Chinese government.

Gain-of-function experiments are carried out in secure labs to purposely make viruses more virile in order to anticipate how they might mutate in the wild to aid the development of vaccines. However, the risks of a virus escaping the lab in the course of these experiments are real. For example, the 1977 influenza strain likely emerged from an accident during vaccine development.

Indeed, gain-of-function experiments have increased considerably in the last few decades. This has been chiefly pushed by big agribusiness’ performative efforts at “biosecurity” since the H5N1 virus (bird flu). Increased scrutiny has led them to finance many of such gain-of-function labs across the world. Rather than taking any real action to end the ecological destruction inherent in the economic model of capitalist agribusiness, these companies have set up these labs to pretend to be trying to clean up their mess, but only after pathogens have emerged.

However, the bulk of the “evidence” presented for the lab-leak theory by the capitalist media centres around the claim that three researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology went to hospital with respiratory symptoms associated with a seasonal flu in 2019. There is no evidence that this was COVID-19, and it is common for researchers at the lab to have regular check-ups in hospitals.

And while the Wuhan Institute of Virology has indeed historically studied bat coronaviruses, since SARS-like viruses were discovered in a cave in Yunnan province in the early 2000s, these viruses are common and this itself is not evidence of a lab-leak.

In fact, the genetic evidence seems to point strongly away from a lab-leak. Researchers have argued that the spike protein that the virus uses to attach to ACE2 receptors on the outsides of human cells would have almost certainly emerged in nature and not as a lab creation, with the virus then further developing through human-to-human transmission.

Even if SARS-2 was being held in the Wuhan Institute of Virology, its genetic code shows that it certainly did emerge from nature and not as a man-made bioweapon as right wing conspiracy theorists suggest. The emergence of the virus can still be placed firmly in capitalism’s metabolic rift with nature.

Capitalism and the spread of Covid-19

Of course, the emergence of the virus itself is not the end of the story, and any investigation should not end at this point. Rather, we should ask how it is that a virus was able to achieve such prevalence across the global human population in a matter of months.

The global neoliberal offensive of the last few decades has gutted social services, under-staffed and strained hospital budgets, and introduced greater levels of precarity to workers by slashing safety nets around the world. Through the grinding down of workers conditions and public services, as well as the rapacious profit-driven destruction of nature, capitalism has laid the exact conditions for devastating pandemics to emerge and ensured that health systems were unprepared to deal with the effects.

In this sense, the lab-leak narrative is being used to obfuscate the role of capitalist governments and the system more generally in allowing the virus to spread so far.

In India, for example, right-wing news sources have suggested that a Chinese bioweapon was behind the recent second wave that devastated India. In this way, the lab-leak theory is being used to hide the barbaric approach of the Modi regime in allowing the virus to spread, as well as the endemic poverty, lack of healthcare, and overcrowding in slums that defines the existence of millions of workers and poor people in India.

In the US, where over 600,000 have died from the pandemic, and elsewhere, capitalist governments refused to take lockdown action when scientists and healthcare workers advised such measures, seeking to maintain the stream of profits for big business, leading to disastrous consequences. All the while, as working-class people faced illness, poverty and death, the capitalist class ruthlessly profiteered off of the crisis. Everything from PPE to hand sanitiser and oxygen saw price hikes in many countries.

The result is that many will have drawn conclusions about the inhumane and irrational nature of the capitalist system. Everyone who lived through 2020 will remember it as a year of unprecedented collapse, when every fault in the system was blown open. This is precisely what the capitalist ruling class fears.

The need for a real investigation

There is a real need for a genuine, independent scientific inquiry into the origins of COVID-19. To this end, no theory should be discounted before virologists have had time to conduct their research.

The world’s capitalist superpowers, facing a ramping up of Imperialist tensions chiefly between the US and China, will never allow the kind of investigation necessary. Even “democratic” capitalist states, seeking to cover for the agribusiness multinationals, have historically withheld crucial information about local virus outbreaks to researchers of zoonotic diseases. In an authoritarian regime like China’s, which fears social “instability” more than anything else, the obsession with secrecy is even greater.

The US did exactly this after the emergence of the H1N1 virus (swine flu), which American agribusiness corporations were the biggest exporters of around the world. And now, the Chinese state is playing this role with COVID-19. As ardent administrators of the capitalist system, the US, China etc are totally unwilling to challenge big agribusiness’ ecologically destructive practices and take the action necessary to prevent future pandemics.

Any investigation into the origins of COVID-19 should be under the democratic control of workers, and led by the virologists and health workers involved, not the apparatuses of the rival imperialist states and their intelligence agencies. The institutions of the imperialist states on both sides of the “New Cold War” are incapable of holding themselves accountable for the crisis they have created.

Such an investigation would need to look beyond the origins of the virus, looking also at how the negligence of capitalist governments and the ruthless profiteering of corporations allowed the virus to spread, evolve and devastate the world.

A real investigation would also put forward key demands to ensure this can never happen again. Immediate and far-reaching investment is needed in the sustainable development of regions that pose a significant threat of spill-over events. To stop the deadliest of pathogens from spilling over, we must preserve forest and wetland complexity, maintaining ecological buffers between disease reservoirs, our food animals and human populations.

Radical socialist measures

The food industry should be taken out of the hands of the world’s agribusiness multinationals who only wish to maximise their profits no matter the cost to the planet and public health.

A socialist food industry, under state ownership and democratic control of the working class and poor people of the world, would immediately employ sustainable agricultural techniques, restore agrobiodiversity and ban the hyper-exploitative working conditions of the world’s agricultural workers.

This is just one of many necessary steps a socialist planned economy would take towards healing capitalism’s metabolic rift with nature. Such a system would be based on production for need, not greed, as well as solidarity between workers across the world, not inter-imperialist rivalry. This is only possible if power is wrenched from the capitalist ruling classes and put in the hands of the workers of the world.