Columns
Premium

Starting a Pandemic in Order to Prevent One

(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, file)

“China was preparing for a Third World War with biological weapons — including coronavirus — SIX years ago, according to dossier produced by the People’s Liberation Army in 2015 and uncovered by the US State Department,” the Daily Mail reported.

Chinese scientists have been preparing for a Third World War fought with biological and genetic weapons including coronavirus for the last six years, according to a document obtained by US investigators.

The bombshell paper, accessed by the US State Department, insists they will be ‘the core weapon for victory’ in such a conflict, even outlining the perfect conditions to release a bioweapon, and documenting the impact it would have on ‘the enemy’s medical system’.

If so it creates a disturbing context for the present outbreak. This doesn’t mean that the pandemic was deliberately started by Beijing. It could have happened accidentally, not just in China, but in Russia, the United States, Europe, or a half-dozen other countries. The great powers have de facto been advancing the state of the art of biological warfare for years by pursuing a dual-use technology called gain-of-function (GoF) research, a process that enhances the transmissibility and deadliness of pathogens for scientific purposes. Widespread laboratory experimentation with deadly pathogens had its roots in a public health desire to prevent the outbreak of diseases like SARS, MERS, and Ebola. It’s been used to identify pathogens in nature that may someday become deadly. It is hoped that GoF research would eventually allow pharma to produce anticipatory vaccines or cures, sort of like the department of pre-crime in the Minority Report movie.

Instead, it could have accidentally started what it was intended to prevent.

The idea that Covid-19 jumped directly from a bat or some other animal to humans has been presented as official canon. But in fact, it is only one of several hypothetical explanations. As long as the “missing link” of animal-to-human transmission stays missing, the natural origin theory of the coronavirus epidemic will remain only a theory. Pathogens have crossed the species gap before but they have always left tracks. This time they haven’t. Nicholas Wade writes in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists:

What became clear was that the Chinese had no evidence to offer the commission in support of the natural emergence theory.

This was surprising because both the SARS1 and MERS viruses had left copious traces in the environment. The intermediary host species of SARS1 was identified within four months of the epidemic’s outbreak, and the host of MERS within nine months. Yet some 15 months after the SARS2 pandemic began, and after a presumably intensive search, Chinese researchers had failed to find either the original bat population, or the intermediate species to which SARS2 might have jumped, or any serological evidence that any Chinese population, including that of Wuhan, had ever been exposed to the virus prior to December 2019. Natural emergence remained a conjecture which, however plausible to begin with, had gained not a shred of supporting evidence in over a year.

And as long as that remains the case, it’s logical to pay serious attention to the alternative conjecture, that SARS2 escaped from a lab.

The lack of tracks has kept the lab-escape theory alive despite political disapproval. A lab accident origin would have incalculable implications for governments and companies. The world spent decades in the shadow of the nuclear bomb during the Cold War that, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, seemed over. Yet if the Chinese strategy paper discovered by the State Department is correct in saying that a third world war “will be biological,” unlike the first two which were chemical and nuclear respectively, then the human race faces a whole new future in the penumbra of viruses.

Unlike nuclear weapons, which are pure military applications, biotechnology in general and GoF, in particular, are inseparable from the public health effort to mitigate and cure infectious disease. They are dual-purpose, two sides of the same coin. As these extraordinary workshop proceedings on the Potential Risks and Benefits of Gain-of-Function Research workshop of the Committee on Science, Technology, and Law of the National Academy of Sciences note, it is hard to separate Dr. Henry Jekyll from Mr. Edward Hyde.

Today, it is not known how many people could download an influenza virus sequence and remake the pathogen in his or her own laboratory. But one can say with confidence that the number of people with such capabilities will grow as the capacity to do this work continues to expand. This is a good thing, but it has consequences and implications. Not only is the information now in a digital form, but the procedures are also now digitized and rendered into protocols that can be uploaded to robots. …

these trends mean that one cannot simply talk about risk and benefit at the site where the original information is produced or the site at which the original experiment takes place. It is more than a question of biosafety. This means that the work is a distributed effort across the globe and that many people are interested in this work for a wide variety of reasons

This creates an arms-control problem very different from that of the nuclear age since authorities cannot simply focus on freezing biological research without hampering medical science. The most seductive aspect of letting animals take the rap for the coronavirus pandemic is that it allows research institutes, funding agencies, and the pharmaceutical giants to continue business as usual, bypassing the almost insoluble dilemma of choosing which experiments of unknown outcome should go forward while ensuring nothing will go out of control.

This will require a level of discernment societies do not currently possess. Years ago, scholars warned that humanity would soon face global catastrophic risk from technology itself: “Synthetic pandemics via weaponized biological agents  … anthropogenic climate change, nuclear warfare and nuclear terrorism, molecular nanotechnology, and artificial general intelligence.”

That always seemed the stuff of science fiction. Now, in the first quarter of the 21st-century, science fiction may have finally arrived.

BooksThe Spy in Moscow Station: A Counterspy’s Hunt for a Deadly Cold War Threat. The thrilling, true story of the race to find a leak in the United States Embassy in Moscow―before more American assets are rounded up and killed.
.