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Tens of thousands of people get sick. More than 2,900 die. Fear spreads faster than the virus. Factories are closed. Roads are blocked. Villages are sealed off. Cities are locked down. The outbreak of the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is the most severe sociopolitical crisis Chinese leaders have grappled with since the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. And the crisis is not confined to China. The spread of the virus across borders—and the panicky reaction to that spread—will have profound effects on the global economy, politics, security, and governance.
The virus’s novelty leaves many unknowns. We still don’t have a clear idea of its transmissibility and virulence. We do not have a clear idea of the incubation period, which could last up to 24 days. We also don’t know how infectious people are before their symptoms manifest and why some cases suddenly become severe. We also don’t understand why some patients tested positive a second time even after they seemingly recovered.
Rumors thrive on fear and uncertainty, and the outbreak of the novel coronavirus offers plenty of both. Within weeks of the pathogen’s appearance, social media lit up 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 rumors 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. Loopholes in China’s biosafety regulations only allow the rumors to gain more currency. And the lack of trust between the two nations—as evidenced by China’s initial refusal to allow U.S. disease experts to visit Wuhan—is undermining efforts to contain the virus’s global spread.
From the beginning of the outbreak, the public was informed that the disease originated with human exposure to a virus carried by wild animals. But the suddenness and mystery of the bug’s appearance left fertile ground for speculation, and soon enough, online sources began to advance the claim that the virus was genetically engineered. An unpublished paper authored by Indian scientists seemed to bolster this notion by suggesting that the virus’s protein sequence included elements of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Although the authors soon voluntarily withdrew the paper, the proposed linkage caught the attention of websites such as Zero Hedge, which 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.
Zero Hedge has been barred from Twitter, but Chinese social media abounds with conjecture that the virus was engineered by the United States as an agent of biological warfare against China. 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. Contending that “a new type of biological warfare is coming,” a retired People’s Liberation Army general called for building a permanent biodefense force in China.
The suddenness and mystery of the bug’s appearance left fertile ground for speculation.
The current outbreak in China is not the first to be a rumored biological weapons attack. 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 official China Youth Daily linked a National Institutes of Health–sponsored genetic study in China to the U.S. genetic warfare program. 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 U.S. 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.
Just how likely is either the United States or China to be developing deadly biological weapons for use? A tour through the history of such warfare is instructive.
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 postwar era.
Matthew Meselson, a biologist at Harvard University, led a successful campaign against biological weapons development starting in the early 1960s. In 1969, the United States got rid of its offensive biological warfare program 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 U.S. 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.”
Compared with the United States, China came late to the game. The country had been on the receiving end of germ warfare, on the part of the Imperial Japanese Army’s biowarfare Unit 731 during World War II. 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.
The mid-1980s saw a shift in China’s national agenda toward economic development. Funding for China’s biodefense research facilities dwindled, and they began developing products for civilian rather than military purposes. The AMMS became something of an analog to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. It developed a pan-antimalaria 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.
China and the United States are both parties to the BWC, but they still look upon each other with suspicion. Past U.S. government reports have alleged that China continued to possess “an offensive biological warfare capability based on technology developed prior to its accession to the BWC.” According to a former official from the U.S. Department of Defense, by the 1990s China had manufactured and weaponized a wide variety of infectious microorganisms and toxins and had a wide range of delivery means available, including ballistic and cruise missiles. Although these reports and accusations have never been substantiated by open-source evidence, official Chinese publications do suggest sustained and organized biowarfare-related research activity. Official sources reported that in the 1990s, Chinese scientists used rare earth as a medium in which to swiftly cultivate brucellosis (traditionally considered a biological agent suitable for military use).
Many people in China also perceive the United States as a potential biological warfare threat. After the 2002–3 SARS outbreak, some Chinese military experts invoked a scenario of enemies spraying unknown SARS-like viruses on Beijing during airstrikes. Noting that the United States had developed antibiotic-resistant anthrax strains, a leading Chinese military medical expert implied that Washington had weaponized SARS and avian flu virus. In 2001, the administration of President George W. Bush had rejected a proposed protocol to the BWC on the grounds that it was insufficient to its purpose. That refusal convinced some Chinese experts that the United Sates had renewed its interest in developing biological weapons. 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 U.S. 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.
The mutual distrust and misperceptions are emblematic of a classic security dilemma, in which actions taken by one state to improve its security lead to reactions from others, which make the original state less secure. Worse, biodefense programs are so opaque, and provoke such moral antipathy, that they encourage “looking-glass presumptions”: when one state is perceived to be pursuing biological weapons, its rivals will likely seek to acquire them as well. 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).
Many in China also perceive the United States as a potential biological warfare threat.
Whether a disease is naturally occurring or deliberately caused can be difficult to tell, because many biological agents are naturally accessible, and their production is of dual use up to the point of weaponization. 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. The historian Alfred Crosby noted that the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic was suspected to have been started by German agents. 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 U.S. 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. For weeks, China ignored offers of help from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to 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 U.S. CDC experts” might be on a military mission to “spy on China’s virologic research capacity.” Two U.S. 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 epicenter of the outbreak, was initially not even on the group’s itinerary.
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.
Since coronaviruses are zoonotic, which is to say that they jump from animals to humans, scientists believe that they have an animal origin. Most agree that bats are the natural reservoir host for the virus, although snakes for a time were also suspected. Scientists conjecture that pangolins—widely considered a delicacy in China—may be the intermediate host to pass the novel virus to humans. Overall, they are inclined to view the outbreak as a problem of zoonotic infection transmitted from wild animals to humans. While the virus was indeed found in people associated with a wet market (where live animals were sold and slaughtered) as well as in the market environment, some of the early cases were in people who had not visited the market, suggesting that the jumping of species may have occurred elsewhere or earlier.
Another, less supported hypothesis views the outbreak as the result of a biosafety accident in which the coronavirus leaked out from a lab where scientists failed to follow proper decontamination protocol. Supporters of this theory point to the seemingly overwhelming circumstantial evidence that connects the outbreak to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which also houses China’s only biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) lab, the highest level of biosafety precautions. They noted that Dr. Shi Zhengli, a researcher in the lab who has acquired the nickname “Batwoman,” has been actively hunting down the coronavirus and proving that bats are natural reservoirs for SARS-like coronaviruses. Shi has flatly denied that the institute was the source of the novel coronavirus, which she said was rather “nature punishing the human race for keeping uncivilized living habits.”
Other Chinese social media posts focused on the credentials of the director general of the institute, Wang Yanyi. A widely shared post allegedly written by Rao Yi, a leading Chinese biologist, said Wang had a weak academic background and ascended to her current post through nepotism. On February 17, one post accused Wang of flouting the biosafety rules and selling laboratory animals to wet markets for profit. Another study, conducted by the South China University of Technology, concluded that the coronavirus “probably” originated in the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which is just 280 meters away from the Hunan Seafood Market. The study mentioned that bats linked to coronavirus once attacked a researcher, who had to be self-quarantined because “blood of a bat shot on his skin.” The paper was later removed from ResearchGate, a commercial social-networking site for scientists and researchers to share papers. Thus far, no scientists have confirmed or refuted the paper’s findings.
Many of these accusations may be groundless, but nobody can deny that lab safety is a major concern in China. A safety breach at a Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention lab is believed to have caused four suspected SARS cases, including one death, in Beijing in 2004. A similar accident caused 65 lab workers of Lanzhou Veterinary Research Institute to be infected with brucellosis in December 2019. In January 2020, a renowned Chinese scientist, Li Ning, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for selling experimental animals to local markets.
The government’s actions have lent credibility to the thesis that the coronavirus accidentally escaped a laboratory. In February, China appointed Major General Chen Wei, China’s top biowarfare expert, as head of the BSL-4 laboratory at Wuhan Institute of Virology. Because of Chen’s background, the appointment fueled suspicions about the virus’s possible connection to the BSL-4 lab. Then, on February 14, Chinese President Xi Jinping highlighted the need to incorporate shengwu anquan (which in Chinese could mean either “biosecurity” or “biosafety”) into its national security regime.
In the literature of biological warfare, the difference between biosecurity and biosafety is important: the former is about the protection of humans and the environment from the intentional release of pathogens and biohazards, while the latter is about safety from their unintentional release. Xi’s remarks were immediately followed by a Ministry of Science and Technology instruction on strengthening biosafety management in labs handling the novel coronavirus, suggesting that Xi had biosafety in mind when issuing the directive. But the Chinese leader could as easily have been referring to animal agriculture, where biosecurity is broadly defined as everything done to keep disease away from animals and the people that may interact with them. Indeed, just last week, China’s legislature announced a permanent ban on wildlife trade and consumption in the country, apparently to minimize the chances of diseases passing to humans from animals.
The virus is now rapidly spreading worldwide, with social, political, and economic consequences wherever it goes. Identifying its origin would help experts and governments to hone the best countermeasures to stem its spread and prevent such outbreaks in the future.
So far, neither the theory that the virus was developed as a biological weapon nor the notion that it escaped a laboratory by accident seems as plausible as the hypothesis that the virus jumped to humans from animals at the wet market. But the conspiracy theories have poisoned the atmosphere for U.S.-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.