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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.


Also read: Coronavirus is not an evil Chinese bioweapon meant to inflict terror. Here’s why


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.

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.


Also read: Coronavirus spread not just an epidemic, pseudoscience has made it a ‘misinfo-demic’ too


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.


Also read: How gene-editing cures may become a bio-weapon nightmare


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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16 Comments Share Your Views

16 COMMENTS

  1. Recent revelations seem to suggest that analysis of the genome of Covid 19 will show that is indeed man made. If it is true, World War III has already begun!

  2. Why 2017 in June there was pandemic bonds taken out? Also Dec 19 2017 why the federal government lifted the ban on deadly viruses in labs gave these mad scientist funding for the deadly viruses they were warned this could turn into a pandemic to kill people. This all could of been prevented years ago by the federal government all others . the people should not be responsible for the trillions of dollars of debts being borrowed also we all want some one to take responsibility and compensate every human being affected on earth.we are victims of a failed systems .make new laws to stop the making of deadly viruses it’s no different than any other means of war that can harm and kill people. If it was intentional or not there is blame not on the people those who are on the top that should of prevented this and protected us to worried about federal funding more than human life and the economy.

  3. Well, I too believe that China is to blame. Being a repeated offender & it’s idea of running that wet market is clear indication that it gives no importance to humanity & it’s denial to allow the independent international investigation is enough to question it’s role.
    But the real problem henceforth is CRISPR gene editing that can alter diseases in a way that they only target certain genes. For example, it might be possible to use CRISPR to design diseases to seek people out with certain genetics, like those with Down syndrome or autism. Going a step even further, it might be possible to use CRISPR to alter diseases to target entire races by focusing the disease on a certain genetic trait. In this way, China could, hypothetically, build a disease that targets the Japanese or any other country and release it, without worrying about it infecting China’s own people. This may sound like a science-fiction movie plot, but it is no longer inconceivable. Not only can genes be edited, but China is already successfully doing it.
    In November 2018, Chinese scientist He Jiankui of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen China announced that he used the gene-editing technique CRISPR-Cas9 to create genetically modified human babies. China investigated his claims & found it accurate.
    This technique easily be used to make genetically engineered killer mosquitos, plagues that target and wipeout specific crops, and possibly even viruses that can snip people’s DNA. So the future is not a safe one because of China’s dual-use infrastructure.
    According to me 1st step should be to remove China from UN Security Council as a Permanent Member. This is big hindrance to get him do as needed. Thanks to Nehru that China became one. He gave India’s position to them. 2nd Destroy all unneccessary labs on globe. Keep on few in selected countries & isolated places. All scientists have to collectively work & concentrate only towards getting biodefense infrastructure ready for the entire world.

  4. 100% China doing bio war……
    In every country covid 19 is spreading total sides but in china only limited to wuhan city not spreading to Beijing…. and other main cities how could it possible to China how couldn’t possible to other countries….
    One should have to boycott the china

  5. Before 911 no one had used commercial airliners as terrorist weapons. Does that mean 911 never happened? According to the author’s logic…since no one previously started a bio attack in one of their own cities, it’s not plausible. Rubbish.
    Intentionally let it out in Wuhan for these reasons. 1) plausible deniability; 2) Wuhan becomes the platform to launch the virus on the rest of the world; 3) during the early phase of the attack provide false information about the virus to facilitate the success of the attack.

  6. Regardless of the source, being natural or man made the Chinese are to blame! This is not the first time either, they must be held accountable in a meaningful way. This story is nothing more than a sideshow for eliminating bio labs for defense, which I agree with. But, we could eliminate all bio labs tomorrow, and the problem would still exist! This pandemic was not an accident, Was preventable and foreseeable and cannot ever happen again!

    • Did you blame the US for swine flu, Middle East for MERS, and Africa for Ebola? The backlog must be mounting. Come back when you have. (Hint: pandemics happen. The origin of this one is not known fully yet. The death toll in countries that have struggled is due to their own ineptitude.)

  7. Let’s be real, calculated risks, People higher than Governments are making billions, if people die so what is the attitude,,, China will kill its own, USA will kill its own, and the list goes on.

  8. I am sure that what the author calls facts are at best conspiracy theories and can be found in the tetra bytes from the web, and they are BS. Do not grub about rubbish for a poor story. We all know China is a autocratic and authoritarian state, and any information they put out is bound to be false. But it is also agreed that just like SARS the present virus is also due to the large wet markets. It became the problem it as China kept the extent and potency of this a secret for couple of months, with WHO supporting it. This is what all the countries who count believe.
    And do research your story with some care and depth, as it is a serious topic and cannot be put together by rehashing something old. No so called bio weapon has caused an epidemic let alone pandemic. Yes, bio labs which research weapons should be closed and all nuclear weapons should be decommissioned. We can dream on.

    • Where did 2009 swine flu start? SARS killed 800 people globally. Swine Flu killed over 350,000. But hey, China is the issue.

  9. Wisely said “world must stop playing in bio labs”. However, all effort will go in vain if librandus continue with their fake news labs. Stopping fake news labs is as crucial as stopping virus bio labs.

  10. How could India play that. We already have leftists in India giving a clean chit to China. Same happens with Pakistan too. Doing politics even with deaths of thousands of people

  11. I agree with the author. This must be taken up in UNSC and there must be a moratorium on all bio-weapon research. All countries must be asked to furnish all details of research being conducted in their respective countries. This is imperative. The World can ill afford any more violations of a virus deliberately or inadvertently let out into the system.

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