New Delhi: Is the novel coronavirus a biological weapon? Did it originate in China and escaped from a Wuhan laboratory or is it an American one inflicted on Wuhan? As there is much uncertainty regarding the transmissibility and virulence of this “severe socio-political crisis”, a spate of conspiracy theories is undermining the efforts to contain the pandemic.
Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, directing the Global Health Governance Roundtable, has written an exhaustive article titled, 'US -Chinese Distrust Is Inviting Dangerous Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories And Undermining Efforts to Contain the Epidemic', published in Foreign Affairs.
In Huang’s article, it is emphasised that rumours thrive on fear and uncertainty, and the outbreak of COVID-19, as the disease has been named, offers plenty of both. It was observed that as soon as the pathogen surfaced, social media was abuzz “with suggestions that the virus was a biological weapon—either a Chinese one that had escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan or an American one inflicted on Wuhan”. While such rumours are not credible, given that neither the United States nor China has incentive to develop biological weapons, “they are difficult to dispel, because military officials on both sides still view with suspicion each other’s motives in building biosecurity programs”, wrote Huang.
“And the lack of trust between the two nations—as evidenced by China’s initial refusal to allow US disease experts to visit Wuhan—is undermining efforts to contain the virus’s global spread,” said the author in the article.
The India connection
Huang has pointed out in the article that there is also an unpublished paper authored by Indian scientists that suggested “the virus’s protein sequence included elements of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS”. The authors withdrew the paper but the proposed linkage caught the attention of websites such as Zero Hedge, and they claimed that the novel “coronavirus was weaponized by Chinese scientists”. Speaking on Fox News, Tom Cotton, the Republican senator from Arkansas, suggested that it could not be ruled out that “the virus originated in a lab in Wuhan that is used to handle the most dangerous pathogens”, said the article.
In China, social media is full of conjecture that the virus was engineered by the United States as an agent of biological warfare. “One widely shared conspiracy theory suggests that American soldiers participating in the 2019 Military World Games in Wuhan deliberately shed the virus at the Hunan Seafood Market,” wrote the author. A retired People's Liberation Army general called for building a permanent biodefence force in China.
This trouble of rumours is not new in China. The author recalled that during the 2002-3 SARS epidemic, “a Russian scientist claimed that the virus was a mixture of measles and mumps that could be made only in the lab. Many Chinese seized on this notion and speculated that SARS was a genetic weapon developed by the United States to target them alone.”
The article in Foreign Affairs said the official China Youth Daily linked a National Institutes of Health-sponsored genetic study in China to the US genetic warfare programme. “In the United States, meanwhile, a China expert suggested that the virus was linked to China’s biowarfare program. Yet SARS was by no means a genetic weapon. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of the 166 reported SARS patients in the United States in 2003, 58 percent were white and 32 percent were Asian,” said the article by Huang.
The author read chapters from history to figure out how likely is either the United States or China developing deadly biological weapons for use.
It has been published in the article in Foreign Affairs that during World War II, the United States developed biological weapons but never used them. “Biological agents had certain liabilities for battlefield use: they didn’t take effect right away, they could infect one’s own forces, they were sensitive to environmental and meteorological conditions, and they could conceivably contaminate an area for longer than intended. Nonetheless, the United States continued to stockpile and develop biological weapons into the post-war era.”
In 1969, the United States got rid of its offensive biological warfare programme and played a crucial role in successfully negotiating an international treaty known as the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). “The treaty prohibits the development, production, and stockpiling of biological agents and related delivery systems intended for hostile use. In explaining the US decision, President Richard Nixon commented in 1970 that 'we’ll never use the damn germs, so what good is biological warfare as a deterrent? If somebody uses germs on us, we’ll nuke ’em',” wrote the author.
He added that compared with the United States, China came late to the game. China had been on the receiving end of germ warfare, on the part of the Imperial Japanese Army’s bio-warfare Unit 731 during World War II, and proceeded to write, “As a result, China felt an imperative to build research facilities devoted to defensive biological warfare. In August 1951, Premier Zhou Enlai set up the Academy of Military Medical Sciences (AMMS) to conduct research on biodefense against 'wartime special weapons'.”
“Since China did not possess nuclear weapons until the mid-1960s, it may indeed have explored developing biological weapons as a weapon of last resort or a strategic deterrent similar to nuclear weapons. But by 1982, China had acquired a largely invulnerable retaliatory nuclear arsenal. Two years later, China acceded to the BWC. The timing indicates that China, like the United States, found nuclear weapons to be the more credible and effective deterrent,” said the author.
There was a shift in China towards economic development and funding for biodefence research facilities dwindled. They began developing products for civilian rather than military purposes. The Academy of Military Medical Sciences (AMMS) became something of an analog to the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases and “developed a pan-anti-malaria drug called compound benflumentol and registered patents in more than 50 countries. During the 2014 Ebola virus outbreak, AMMS collaborated with Chinese pharmaceutical companies to develop two drugs  for treating the deadly disease,” said the author, giving a challenge to conspiracy theories.
China and the United States are both parties to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), yet they look upon each other with suspicion. Many people in China also perceive the United States as a potential biological warfare threat. Going by the past US government reports, allegations have been made that China continued to possess “an offensive biological warfare capability based on technology developed prior to its accession to the BWC”.
There have been various accusations, which the author said have not been substantiated by open-source evidence. “In 2007, Chinese military researchers published an article accusing the United States of using new technologies to develop novel biological weapons agents and claiming that it was “extremely likely” that anthrax spores in the 2001 attacks on Democratic senators’ offices came from US military labs. Such suspicions might explain why the Chinese government later tightened regulations on foreigners using human genetic material and made it more difficult to pass the material abroad,” wrote Huang.
Mutual distrust has been the legacy of big powers. “During World War II, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom all developed biological weapons because they thought Hitler’s Germany would develop them (it didn’t),” said the author.
“In the context of frigid bilateral relations, a naturally occurring disease outbreak caused by an unknown pathogen can be easily framed as a bioweapons attack,” said the author and quoted the historian Alfred Crosby who noted that the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic was suspected to have been started by German agents. His article mentioned that in 2004, the Indian government accused “promiscuous Pakistanis” of conducting Islamic “jihad terrorism” by deliberately spreading HIV in Kashmir. When H5N1 (bird flu) became a major concern worldwide in 2008, Indonesia’s then-health minister, Siti Supari, accused the United States of using virus samples to develop biological weapons and suspended the operation of a US navy medical research unit in Jakarta
At a time of deteriorating relations between the United States and China, misperceptions of a hostile origin of COVID-19 have undermined global efforts to tackle the pathogen’s spread. That is a big concern.
The author pointed out that “For weeks, China ignored offers of help from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention”.
He has quoted a blog post published on a website affiliated with Jiefang Daily (the official newspaper of the Shanghai Committee of the Communist Party of China). “Some US CDC experts” might be on a military mission to “spy on China’s virologic research capacity”, it says. Interestingly, the author pointed out that two US experts finally joined the World Health Organization’s delegation to China in February, but the delegation’s field visit did not include the Wuhan Institute of Virology—indeed, Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, was initially not even on the group’s itinerary.
The author has discredited the conspiracy theories saying in the article that the claim that the novel coronavirus is a biological weapon is not only harmful but also scientifically unsupported. “Scientists have pointed out that mutations  in the virus are “completely consistent with natural evolution.” According to The Lancet , scientists from multiple countries have “overwhelmingly” concluded that the novel coronavirus originated in wildlife, he wrote.
The author said that the conspiracy theories have poisoned the atmosphere for US- Chinese collaboration in addressing the outbreak, which might otherwise have presented an opportunity to reset the soured relationship.
“In order to dispel misperceptions and minimalize the damage to future relations, the two countries should consider expanding their military-to-military exchanges, such that they might visit each other’s sites for conducting government-sponsored biodefense work. And the United States should explore channels for helping China improve its laboratory biosafety. The beginning of either measure is dialogue,” Huang signed off in the article published on March 5.