Is Covid-19 a Chinese Bio-weapon?
Union Minister Nitin Gadkari is perhaps the second politician in the world after US President Donald Trump to suspect that the Covid-19 virus that has now gripped the entire world is not natural but man-made in a Chinese laboratory at Wuhan. In an interview with NDTV, he has said, “We have to understand the art of living with corona. This is not a natural virus.” Gadkari is of the view that since it is not a natural virus, scientists are finding it difficult to come out with a solution, be it a vaccine or medicine. Gadkari’s views carry weight as the Covid-19 virus that China claimed to be well under control in Wuhan a month ago has now relapsed there, making it reminiscent of the reported Soviet experiment not many years ago with re-engineering pathogens within a pathogen whereby during the first stage illness was carried by an innocuous fast spreading endemic microbe while the second pathogen would be genetic material that would cause the body to attack and breakdown its own vital systems.
Was Covid-18 then being experimented by China as a biological weapon in the laboratory that leaked accidentally? China alone knows the truth and it should be transparent about the whole thing as demanded by the rest of the world. But it has no such inclinations. China is not explaining why it, while stopping flights from Wuhan to the rest of the country after the Covid-19 outbreak, continued to allow international flights to operate from Wuhan, thus facilitating the global spread of the virus. It is also simply not bothered over the growing international apprehensions as to why it has clamped down further research by Chinese scientists into the origins of the virus.
China has been long suspected to developing a dangerous biological weapon programme. As Vice Admiral Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar says, China’s BW strategy is a declaration of their resolve to make genetic weapons instruments of “bloodless victory.” In 2016, the Chinese government launched the National Gene Bank, which is the world’s largest repository of genetic data. It aims to “use China’s genetic resources, safeguard national security in bioinformatics, and enhance China’s capability to seize the strategic heights” in Biological Warfare (BW). Circumstantial evidence suggesting China’s involvement in release (inadvertently?) of the COVID-19 virus is really mounting. In March 2019, under mysterious circumstances a shipment of exceptionally virulent microorganisms (Ebola, Coronavirus, SARS etc.) from Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) found their way to Wuhan. The event triggered a major scandal questioning how the lethal viruses were transferred to China. Following investigation, the incident was traced to Chinese operatives working at NML It led to their expulsion. Among them were Dr Qiu and Dr Cheng who had direct links with several BW civil-military fusion laboratories in China.
Though infectious diseases are natural phenomena whereas bio-weapons are deliberately designed, their impacts are the same. Besides, there have been historical episodes of victims of infectious diseases becoming weapons themselves. In 1346, the attacking Tartar forces (ethnic group living mainly in Tatarstan and the wider Volga-Ural region) experienced an epidemic of plague, but they converted their misfortune into an opportunity by hurling the cadavers of their deceased into the city of Genoa (then an independent Republic on the north-western Italian coast), thus initiating a plague epidemic in the city. The outbreak of plague forced a retreat of the Genoese forces. There have been other instances as well. Therefore, it is quite disconcerting to many now in India over the news that Pakistan is deliberately pushing the Corona-affected terrorists into Kashmir.
If anything, irrespective of whether or not China and Pakistan see the Covid-19 as a bio-weapon, the epidemic has underscored the dangers associated with the outbreak of a biological warfare whenever and wherever it occurs. Broadly speaking, biological Weapons are “micro-organisms that infect and grow in the target host, producing a clinical disease that kills or incapacitates the target. Such microbes may be natural, wild-type strains or may be the result of genetically engineered organisms.” These could be pathogenic bacteria, fungi, viruses and their toxic products or chemical compounds viruses, produced specifically for the purpose of inflicting disease or death. These can spread via water, air and soil. If specially produced, these can damage even crops, as have been seen in cases of British forces in then Malaya in 1950s and American troops in Vietnam in 1960s.
Three aspects make biological weapons different from other weapons. First, these are extremely economical to manufacture, and hence can be easily employed by not only weaker nations but also non-state actors like terrorists. Secondly, these are very difficult to be detected because the virus requires an incubation period before its effects can be seen on the victims. In fact, the incubation factor works to the advantage of the aggressor not being concealed; there are overwhelming chances of their impact or spread being considered as a natural outbreak.
Thirdly, and this is most important, the biological weapons are highly infectious and can affect as much the affecting forces as those attacked. It has proven very difficult to create agents or bio-weapons which can discriminate between friend and foe, because their effects tend to persist longer than the operational conditions that justified their use, and they tend to spread beyond what the attacker has envisaged. Of course, the attacker can use them if it is 100 percent certain that its political and economic system or the system of crisis-management is stronger and more capable than that of the attacked in weathering the pandemic. However, given unpredictability in how resilient political systems will prove to resist an attack, launching a general pandemic in the hopes of suffering relatively less than a foe is incredibly risky.
However, bio-weapons have been used throughout the ages as far as one can remember. It is recorded that bio-war had already started 14 centuries before Christ, when the Hittites sent infected rams to their enemies. And, during the past century, of more than 500 million people who died of infectious diseases, several tens of thousands of these deaths were due to the deliberate release of pathogens or toxins. The dawn of industrial revolution opened more opportunities for the innovative use of biological weapons. All the industrial powers have resorted to it. The worst culprit in this regard has been Japan, the country that used these weapons intensely against China during the inter-war years. The Japanese army poisoned more than 1,000 water wells in Chinese villages to study cholera and typhus outbreaks. Japanese planes dropped plague-infested fleas over Chinese cities or distributed them by means of saboteurs in rice fields and along roads. Some of the epidemics they caused persisted for years and continued to kill more than 30,000 people in 1947, long after the Japanese had surrendered.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States both established significant biological weapons programmes, often building upon the work of their defeated foes. Both developed aerosol sprays capable of delivering bacterial and viral agents by plane or ballistic missile. Both sides also stockpiled plenty of anthrax. In both countries, accidents and tests inflicted casualties on their civilian populations, although general outbreaks were prevented. In fact, in cities like San Francisco and New York that were the testing grounds for these weapons, particularly for the study of the spread of the pathogen in a big city, resulted in a large number of infections. It caused such uproar that President Richard Nixon issued an executive order in 1969, unconditionally ending America’s bioweapons programmes. As regards the then Soviet Union, in 1979,
100 people and countless livestock died following the accidental release of anthrax spores from a bioweapons plant in the city of Sverdlovsk — one of 40 such facilities that operated in the former Soviet Union.
As far as the non-state actors and terrorists using bio-weapons in recent times are concerned, we have the notorious example of the 1995 sarin gas attack inside the Tokyo subway by the Japanese apocalyptic cult Aum Shinrikyo. The widely publicised assault, which killed 13 people and hospitalised thousands, had been preceded by a series of failed botulism and anthrax assaults near the Imperial Palace, a Tokyo airport and two U.S. military bases. And then there was the case of the ‘anthrax letters’ in the aftermath of the World Trade Centre attack of 9 September 2001 in New York. Several letters were sent during the autumn to government officials or journalists. Overall, 22 people were infected with anthrax, and five of them died from anthrax or complications resulting from it. This bio-terrorist attack might not have killed many, but it had a huge impact at a psychological and political level.
Now the question is how the world is dealing with this problem. Countries have joined together to sign conventions or treaties from time to time to prohibit the BW, but these have been proved ineffective. The latest such treaty is the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC or BWC) that entered into force in 1975. The BWC currently has 182 States as parties and five signatory states.
However, the BWC does not provide firm guidelines for inspections and control of disarmament and adherence to the protocol. There are unresolved controversies about the definition of “defensive research” and the quantities of pathogens necessary for benevolent or peaceful research. The scope of the BWC is rather ambiguous. What is to be banned and what is to be exempted is doubtful in the name of the scientific and technological advances. Secondly, there are no guidelines on enforcement and how to deal with violations.
Therefore, we have to live with the reality of biological weapons or for that matter bio-terrorism. We have to strengthen our medical community and develop our health infrastructures, with improved diagnostic capabilities, therapeutic agents, and facilities for further research towards new vaccines and medicine. All this, of course, does not diminish the importance of creating a strong global norm that rejects development of bio-weapons.
By Prakash Nanda