Over the weekend, Republican Sen. Tom Cotton came under fire for a series of comments and tweets on the coronavirus. On Fox News Sunday morning, Cotton suggested the virus did not originate in an animal market as the Chinese government has claimed, but perhaps from another source, such as an infectious disease research lab nearby. While acknowledging there’s no evidence the disease originated there, Cotton questioned the validity of China’s statements, saying “China was lying from the beginning, and they’re still lying today.”
Cotton’s theory is one of many that have been floating around as China and other countries aim to get a handle on the outbreak. Here’s what we know about the coronavirus.
After his appearance on Fox News, Cotton took to Twitter to clarify his position. He claimed there are “at least four hypotheses about the origin of the virus,” ranging from “the engineered-bio weapon hypothesis” to “natural,” which Cotton calls “still the most likely but almost certainly not from the Wuhan food market.”
In his interview on Fox, Cotton said his conviction that the virus did not originate in the Wuhan food market was based on a study published in the Lancet medical journal in January 2020.
“Epidemiologists who are widely respected from China who have published a study in the international journal The Lancet have demonstrated that several of the original cases did not have any contact with that food market,” Cotton said. “The virus went into that food market before it came out of that food market.”
Early January statements from the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission had said most cases were related to the South China Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, based on preliminary studies.
Besides Cotton, The Washington Times, citing an Israeli biological warfare analyst, suggested the virus was developed in a lab, potentially as part of a Chinese bioweapons program. A story claiming China planned to admit the virus came from the lab was also circulating on Facebook but flagged by fact-checkers as false.
Facts First: Experts have dismissed Cotton’s “engineered bioweapon hypothesis” but noted it’s possible, yet unlikely, that the lab was connected to the start of the outbreak.
Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at MIT with a background in chemical engineering told CNN, “the thing that weighs against the claim is that it’s a terrible bioweapon. If you were engineering a bioweapon this would have the absolute opposite of the characteristics you would want.”
Cotton’s other hypotheses were more plausible, Narang said.
“If the claim is that there were bats at the facility that may have had the novel coronavirus and there was a lapse in security and protocol, it’s possible but it doesn’t sound like there was anything intentional,” Narang said. “Unless there’s strong evidence to the contrary that should be the operating assumption.”
Regarding Cotton’s hypothesis that the virus originated in connection with a lab, Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said “I have seen no one provide any solid information to support that theory. I think at this point you can draw a line through it and say that didn’t happen.”
“Everyone with whom I’ve spoken, or whom I’ve read, thinks that it has come from a natural source, as did the SARS virus, as did the MERS virus. Both of those were also coronaviruses in animal populations that jumped to the human species in the natural environment,” Schaffner said. “By now scientists all over the world have looked at this virus and nothing nefarious has come up.”
In his conversation with Fox’s Maria Bartiromo on Sunday, Cotton decried China’s response to the virus. He said, “They have more than 70 million people now under quarantine, and you’ve probably seen the videos online from social media sites, as have I, of the Chinese Communist Party’s police beating people who they think might have coronavirus or trying to keep them locked inside of their apartments or quarantining them in large hospitals or what have you.”
Facts First: Cotton exaggerated certain aspects of China’s response to the situation. While almost half of China’s population is in some way restricted from traveling in response to the outbreak, not all of these individuals are in quarantine.
The strictest restrictions are in the four cities at the heart of the outbreak, where residents are now forbidden to leave their homes. The combined population of these cities is approximately 25 million.
Even taking into account individuals outside of these cities in self-quarantine as well as the more than 70,000 individuals in mainland China infected with the virus, the total is still less than Cotton’s estimated 70 million. As of Monday, the total number of cases of coronavirus worldwide was 71,000 which includes patients demonstrating symptoms who have not yet tested positive. While there have been concerns about the figures China has reported, given the government’s track record of suppressing information about this and previous crises, the World Health Organization has backed the way China now counts and reports the number of coronavirus cases.
In an effort to stop the spread of the virus, certain residential compounds have been sealed off and officials have been authorized to go door-to-door for screening purposes.
On these screenings Schaffner said, “We know that people have been organized to go door to door and take their temperature and seek out people who are ill. I have heard reports that sometimes they are forceful, but I have not heard about beating.”
Warm weather to the rescue?
President Donald Trump has also been vocal on Twitter about the coronavirus, largely in praise for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s response to the situation. In one such series of tweets, Trump implied warm weather would weaken and help eliminate the virus, a claim he has since reiterated in public remarks.
Speaking to the nation’s governors, Trump said, “The virus that we’re talking about having to do, you know a lot of people think that goes away in April, with the heat, as the heat comes in. Typically that will go away in April.”
Facts First: Infectious disease experts told CNN nobody knows enough about the novel coronavirus to make assessments about its behavior, so they cannot say for sure yet whether it will behave as the President has claimed.
There is a basis for the President’s assumption. During a briefing last week on the coronavirus, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases noted that the regular flu is seasonal, with a decline in cases often around March and April.
“There’s a certainty, for example, of seasonal flu,” Fauci said. “The issue now with this is that there’s a lot of unknowns.”
You can read a longer fact-check of this last claim here.
Nadia Kounang contributed reporting.