The terrific Zeynep Tufekci takes to Twitter to emphasize how importance of the letter from eminent in Science magazine declaring “both zoonotic origin and lab accident are ‘viable’ as origins of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. (For more on that letter, read Jimmy Quinn here and here.)
But I have one small quibble with Tufekci’s assessment: “Note that there are many possibilities that combine some of these theories (zoonotic origin *and* lab screw-up, for example). Personally, besides ‘I don’t know,’ the only one I can discount is the bioweapon research: that makes no sense. Rest: needs a genuine investigation.”
I would agree that the notion of SARS-CoV-2 is a deliberate bioweapon is unlikely; it’s too contagious and difficult to control to be useful as a weapon. And the fact that the people of Wuhan population got hit first, and the Chinese economy was largely disrupted, is further evidence that a deliberate release by some sort of Chinese authority is extremely unlikely.
With that said, it isn’t crazy to wonder if SARS-CoV-2 was somehow connected to Chinese government or military research tied to biological weapons.
China indisputably had a bioweapons program in the past, and U.S. intelligence cannot confirm Beijing’s claims that they no longer have a bioweapons research program. Early in the last book, I had the characters just stop and start laying out everything I had found in my open-source research.
“The Japanese killed 270,000 Chinese through biological weapons attacks and biological experimentation during World War Two, and the Chinese military has never forgotten that,” she began. “The People’s Liberation Army is utterly, completely convinced that the United States never gave up our biological weapons programs as we promised in 1969. They’re also convinced that the Soviet Union did provide biological weapons to its allies in the 1970s, and the ‘Yellow Rain’ attacks in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia really happened—that was supposed to be a toxic fungus, liquefied into a gel and spread by aircraft or helicopters. For what it’s worth, the United Nations says it couldn’t verify the claims.”
Ward let out a skeptical grunt. Katrina opened up another folder.
“China’s military insists they no longer have an offensive program, and they go through the motions of compliance with the biological weapons convention, but just about all of their research done on fighting viruses can just as easily be turned around and used to create offensive biological weapons. In 2000, the head of the Soviet bioweapons program wrote a book, saying their spies had found two rare viruses—Ebola and Marburg—not far from the Malan nuclear testing facilities, and concluded China was experimenting with bacteriological weapons in the 1980s. For what it’s worth, our side couldn’t confirm that. Chinese military publications openly declare that the United States already has weapons that can target particular genetic populations.” . . .
“China has no less than thirty-two facilities doing biomedical research that could easily be applied to developing a virus designed to target only particular populations,” she said, shuffling through the paper quickly. “The State Research Center for Viro-Biotechnology Engineering in Beijing, the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products, the People’s Liberation Army Institute of Disease Control and Prevention, PLA Key Genetic Engineering Laboratory…and those are just the ones we know about. Institute of Microbiology and Epidemiology in Beijing, Beijing Huifenglong Biotechnology Development company, and the Institute of Medical Equipment in Tianjin have all done extensive field tests of aerobiology, studying how different biological materials aerosolize and disperse in wind patterns—far too much testing to simply be preparing to protect their people against an attack.”
The Chinese government can always argue that all of this research is designed to stop viruses, not develop them, refine them, and spread them. After all, China would have particular motivation to research contagious viruses after the first SARS outbreak. But as Alina Chan has observed, what Chinese laboratories say they have found is significantly more than the data they’ve publicly released, a habit of omissions that makes it tougher to believe this is all just an entirely benevolent public health research program. “I’m not super sure these scientists understand the mandate of their virus hunting program. When you find clusters of mysterious illnesses and find potentially concerning viruses from the location, shouldn’t it be both urgent and important to immediately publish those findings?”
This past February former deputy national-security adviser Matt Pottinger said on Face the Nation, “We have very strong reason to believe that the Chinese military was doing secret classified animal experiments in that same laboratory, going all the way back to at least 2017.” And notice this strangely ominous warning from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, around the same time:
For years, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has collected large healthcare data sets from the U.S. and nations around the globe, through both legal and illegal means, for purposes only it can control. While no one begrudges a nation conducting research to improve medical treatments, the PRC’s mass collection of DNA at home has helped it carry out human rights abuses against domestic minority groups and support state surveillance. The PRC’s collection of healthcare data from America poses equally serious risks, not only to the privacy of Americans, but also to the economic and national security of the U.S.
Why would the Chinese government want to collect lots of data about Americans’ DNA? Why would Beijing collecting the genetic codes of Americans represent a serious risk to the national security of the country? Because if you know somebody’s genetic code, you know how to kill him, and how to make it look like a natural viral or bacterial infection.
Add it all up, and it becomes difficult to conclude that SARS-CoV-2 could not possibly have been connected to research in a Chinese biological weapons program, even if the virus itself is unlikely to be a biological weapon.
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