As the Covid-19 pandemic continues its destructive course, two theories are being widely aired. One, that the coronavirus pandemic may have been the result of an accident at a biosafety level 4 laboratory in China’s Wuhan city. Two, and this is more fanciful but not impossible, that China deliberately launched a biological attack in order to position itself as the single greatest superpower, while flattening its rivals’ industrial and economic capacity.
Both theories have strong supporters armed with a battery of ‘facts’. The problem is not with data, though. It’s China itself, with its habitual secrecy, big ambitions, and absolute disregard for life or the environment. Allied to that is the fact that bio labs everywhere have been a source of serious threats, with the big powers seeing them as potentially usable as weapons of mass destruction, proved by the large number of such facilities worldwide.
The laboratory in Wuhan is the result of a collaborative effort with France, after the first SARS outbreak in 2002. The lab is one of 20 such facilities under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, but is the only one dealing with virology. Fully compliant with ISO standards, the Wuhan facility interacts regularly with a host of outside experts. Like other labs, its aim is to protect populations against new viruses. But the trouble is the blurry line between defensive and offensive study, which lies at the heart of biological research and warfare.
Laboratories of diseases
Biological weapons are those that use microorganisms or toxins to induce a disease in humans, livestock or plants. It is the deadliest weapon in any arsenal, since unlike nuclear weapons, there is no way to map its spread, including into an attacker’s territory. Countries suspected or known to have such programmes include the US, Russia, France, Germany, Japan, Canada, Israel, Iran and North Korea. The array of weapons includes anthrax, botulinum, smallpox and other such diseases that once plagued the world.
Even as research has provided vital vaccines against such diseases, countries have long used them in warfare. One of the earliest can be traced back to 600 BC when purgative herbs were used to poison wells or plague-ridden bodies were catapulted into cities during a siege. The latter probably resulted in the plague sweeping across continents, in one of the worst disasters of the time.
Later, during World War II, the Soviets used a deadly bacterium (tularaemia) against German troops that caused skin ulcers, severe vomiting, and diarrhea. Japan’s bio-research included experiments on prisoners of war, and against Chinese cities. That was a mistake. It rebounded and killed more than a thousand Japanese personnel.
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Historical evidence, therefore, shows that authoritative regimes will use everything possible to achieve their goals. But it also shows that use of bioweapons can harm the aggressors in turn. But not a single country has used it against itself in any diabolic plan to get at everyone else, which indicates that Covid-19 being a ‘deliberate’ Chinese attack on the world is shaky at best.
When not deliberate, accidents take over
The second question is that of accidents at research labs. Data is scarce, since the very existence of such labs is a secret. Some incidents have been outed. A well known Rutgers University scientist, for instance, warned that the anthrax attacks — where lethal spores were sent through anonymous letters across the US after the 9/11 attacks — were carried out by “a person who had authorised access to anthrax spores at a US military lab”.
In another case, a US scientist working on avian flu rushed through safety procedures in order to get to a staff meeting. The result was that a mild flu virus was tainted with the fatal H5N1, and sent to a poultry research farm. The facility was a BS-3 level lab. US government reports also noted other safety lapses, which included anthrax stored in unsecured freezers and samples in Ziploc bags. Public health scientists have voiced their alarm at the development of mutant strains, while there are allegations that US labs were linked to Ebola outbreaks in West Africa.
Other countries didn’t do well either. As recently as September 2019, Russia confirmed an explosion at its Novosibirsk, which houses one of the two labs worldwide that store smallpox,among other viruses. In another incident, it took researchers 40 years to decode the genome signature of a virus that escaped a Soviet lab in 1979. Reliable reports have noted more than a hundred safety breaches at UK labs. The list goes on to encompass almost every country with scientific knowhow. Experts like Richard Ebright have noted that SARS viruses have leaked from Chinese labs before, though Wuhan itself has a clean record. Accidents, therefore, do happen.
Right the wrong, end biological war
Scientists have since come out in support of the Wuhan lab, declaring that the virus came from natural sources. Yet, suspicions continue, given that Chinese secrecy and its hierarchical culture prevent the transparency that is needed, and is often inevitable, in democracies. In Beijing, a public calling-out of unsafe practices is unthinkable, with the death of whistleblower Li Wenliang, and the disappearance of a critic and his girlfriend seemingly proving the point. Second, there is the clout that China commands. The World Health Organization (WHO) seriously downplayed the coronavirus threat initially. As late as mid-January, the WHO was echoing the Chinese position that the virus was not contagious.
Then there is the environmentally disastrous Chinese food habits and ‘medicine’ – usually aphrodisiacs – both of which tie up with variations of the coronavirus. Despite the global catastrophe, Beijing will evade a strong investigation and calls for reparations, and try to retrieve its position with assistance. That’s not good enough. The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly changed the world. If that change has to be for the better, Beijing has to be far more willing to open up its bio-related facilities to inspection. Alongside China, other powers will also have to finally end the idea of a biological war, and power up absolute adherence to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, a treaty that bans a group of bioweapons.
India has chosen to soft shoe what US President Donald Trump calls the ‘Chinese virus’ and called for a strengthening of WHO. That’s standard diplomacy. It’s time to turn up the heat together with other affected countries. After all, being neighbours, we are in the front row to the next outbreak from China. If Beijing does nothing and plays innocent, it is absolutely certain another outbreak will happen.
The author is former director, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.
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