Did a 1981 novel ‘prophesise’ the coronavirus outbreak in China? A fact-check

A page from Dean Koontz’s’ ‘Eye of the Darkness’ is doing the rounds on social media, fueling conspiracy theories on the novel coronavirus.
Did a 1981 novel ‘prophesise’ the coronavirus outbreak in China? A fact-check
Did a 1981 novel ‘prophesise’ the coronavirus outbreak in China? A fact-check
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Over the past couple of days, a photo of an excerpt from a 1981 thriller novel has been doing the rounds on social media. People are quite taken and shocked by it, for it appears to have eerily prophesised the outbreak of an illness like the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), which has infected over 71,000 persons and left over 1,700 dead as of Monday.

The book in question is Dean Koontz’s Eye of the Darkness, a thriller novel. Its story revolves around a pathogen created in a Chinese military lab as part of a biological weapons programme. This lab, in the book, is located outside of Wuhan – the Chinese city in the country’s Hubei province, which is also where the outbreak of coronavirus happened in present day. In the book, ‘Wuhan-400’, a weapon of biological warfare, is the result of manmade microorganisms created at the lab.

The page of the book doing the rounds also says that ‘Wuhan-400’ is a “perfect weapon” – it afflicts only human beings and no other living creature can carry it. ‘Wuhan-400’ cannot survive outside the human body over a minute.

Now, all this may seem sinister, especially with conspiracy theories floating around that the novel coronavirus was actually conceived in a lab. The Wuhan Institute of Virology is just 32 kilometres from the epicentre of the outbreak, leading to rumours that the virus may have originated from the virology lab.

While it may seem fascinating to discuss whether a fiction book from almost four decades ago could have foretold the novel coronavirus outbreak, it can be dangerous in the time of misinformation and fake news.

As for this strain of the virus having originated in a lab, the matter has been clearly debunked. Experts have said that there is no evidence of genetic engineering involved in COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019), as it’s being referred to by the World Health Organisation (WHO), and the mutations in the virus are in line with natural evolution.  

Now, about the virus being a means of biological warfare. While conspiracy theories that the virus was leaked by USA deliberately, or that it is a bioweapon of Chinese making have also been busted for the simple reason – it’s not a very effective bioweapon. According to this South China Morning Post report, the virus only kills 2% of its victims, and on average only spreads to 2.2 persons from an infected person.

And what about the virus not surviving outside human body as the Eye of the Darkness says? We know that’s not true. WHO says that increasing evidence shows a link between the 2019-nCoV and other similar known coronaviruses were circulating in bats, especially bats of the Rhinolophus sub-species.

“These sub-species are abundant and widely present in Southern China, and across Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. Recent studies indicate that more than 500 CoVs have been identified in bats in China,” WHO says.   

And while the mode of transmission to humans is unclear, WHO says that Chinese as well as external experts are doing research to zero down on the animal source of novel coronavirus.

Among the precautions against this virus, WHO advises avoiding unprotected contact with farm or wild animals too.   

The Chinese authorities have also placed a ban on live animals at wet markets in Wuhan, because the virus is believed to have originated at a meat market. In this case, the Huanan Seafood Market specifically, per reports.

The WHO meanwhile says that while bats are rare in Chinese markets as they are usually hunted and sold to restaurants directly, the most likely mode of transfer was through an intermediary host i.e. another animal that got the virus from the bats, and subsequently spread it to human beings. 

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