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Coronavirus – A Matter of Life and Death?

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How Bio-weapons are designed…

If you were going to “build” a biological agent, a “bio-weapon,” what would you want?

The layman would say “lethality.”  Its purpose would be to kill.  It should do so effectively.

In the cold, hard, brutal world of biological weapons design, that single characteristic turns out not to be so simple.  Yes, certainly, the organism must ultimately kill its host to achieve the desired horrifying result.  But, there are many pieces to how that is most “efficiently” achieved.

The organism, the disease, must spread directly human to human and ideally be airborne.  Many diseases are transmitted to humans by infected animals, usually when the animals are eaten.  This does not allow the disease to spread rapidly through human populations.

Paradoxically, the disease must not kill too quickly.  There must be time for one person who has been infected to infect as many others as possible.  If a person exposed to the organism dies too rapidly there will not be time for him to infect the maximum number of others.

Finally, at least for our purposes here, an individual infected with the disease should ideally be able to communicate the illness to others even before symptomatic.  Efforts to control the spread of a previously unknown illness will key on simple tests such as temperature checks, which can be applied easily to large groups.  If infected individuals can circulate freely, infecting others and escaping detection, the number of people exposed and infected will increase greatly.

The coronavirus is currently sweeping across China.

The coronavirus currently sweeping across China has all these characteristics.  It can pass directly from one human to another.  It takes up to 14 days to fully incubate.  And, according to Chinese authorities, long before an individual becomes symptomatic, he or she is contagious.

There are also other facts concerning this virus that should give us pause. The only bio lab in China at which work can be done on viruses of this type is located just outside the city of Wuhan – the epicenter of the growing epidemic.  The coronavirus is also known to be of interest to Chinese bio-researchers, and, in fact, last year Chinese intelligence personnel were implicated in the theft of coronavirus from a Canadian lab and the transport of the organism to China.

None of that is conclusive.  None of that tells us definitively that the virus is manmade or even that humans had any part in its release.  The leading theory is that the virus entered the human population from a market in Wuhan where animals known to carry the coronavirus are sold as food. That remains, as of this writing, the most likely explanation for what is now happening.

Should we be treating this as a possible bioterror event?

Still, it would be wise to consider the implications of the possibility that this is a bio-warfare event, deliberate or otherwise.

The idea of an attack with a bio-weapon, by a nation-state or a terrorist group is not science fiction.  This is reality.  Al Qaida, before 9/11, was already working with anthrax.  The Japanese Army in World War II used the bubonic plague against the Chinese.  Every terrorist group on the planet has aspirations of some kind to be able to weaponize disease and create what WMD experts often refer to as the poor man’s nuclear weapon.  We should assume that we will see a bio-weapons attack sometime in the near future, that it will come without notice and that we will have to manage its consequences.

To control the spread of a bio-weapon deliberately engineered to spread rapidly, escape detection for as long as possible and kill most efficiently will require rapid decision-making and prompt, decisive action.  Neither of those things is in evidence today in regard to the coronavirus.

China downplaying the event as it is spreading.

The Chinese reaction has been, predictably enough a disaster.  Beijing generally responds to political dissonance and bad economic news by simply denying they exist and hewing to the party line.  It chose the same path in this case in regard to the coronavirus.  We now know that coronavirus was detected at the beginning of December, and yet Chinese authorities did not begin to sound the alarm until almost a month later. China continues to spew out numbers that make no sense and to deliberately downplay the significance of what is happening.

Meanwhile, the virus has done the only thing it knows how to do – spread. Wuhan, the city where the virus was first detected is under quarantine, but estimates are that fully five million people may have left the infected area for other parts of China before the lockdown went into effect.

Cases of the virus have been detected in many other regions of China already, but enforcement of travel restrictions remain lax.  Not until two days ago did Chinese authorities impose a ban on Chinese tour groups leaving the country for other parts of the world.  Supposed enforcement measures to stop the spread of the disease to Hong Kong had not yet been implemented as of this morning.

How’s the rest of the world responding?

Meanwhile, the response in the rest of the world makes what China is doing look resolute and decisive.  The Center for Disease Control’s guidance for travelers to China as of today remains a recommendation that travelers avoid non-essential trips to Wuhan and the surrounding area.

A person from New York can fly to China today, spend a few days, and return to Manhattan without any interference on the part of American authorities or requirement for special screening of any kind.

In China there are now over 2700 confirmed cases of the coronavirus.  That number has tripled in two days.  Infectious disease experts in Hong Kong have said they think that number is ridiculously low and that based on their math there are likely 44,000 people infected in Wuhan already.  A nurse in Wuhan treating coronavirus patients was quoted recently as saying she believed 90,000 people had the disease.

Over 2800 people worldwide have been determined to be infected.  Eighty people have died so far.  Based on statistics from Wuhan where the outbreak began, at least 5% of the individuals infected will die.  As hard numbers increasingly become available the death rate will likely only increase.

The Center for Disease Control has already confirmed the presence of the virus in at least four states, Arizona, California, Illinois, and Washington.

Our modern world spreads disease very quickly.

For most Americans, Wuhan – a city they have never heard of in China – may seem very far away.  Events there may seem a similarly distant concern.  For the purposes of the spread of infectious disease, that distance means very little.  Deadly organisms don’t spread gradually in some inkblot fashion from a point of origin.  They jump rapidly, typically via aircraft, from one city to another, across oceans and deserts, and explode outward from travel hubs into surrounding areas.

A virus that sweeps through Wuhan is very quickly in Beijing.  Once there it is in London, New York, Tokyo, and New Delhi within days if not hours.  By the time deaths begin to mount up at the point of origin and quarantines are imposed it is too late.  The fire has already jumped the firebreaks, and all we can do is focus on limiting the death toll.

The coronavirus – naturally occurring or manmade- is doing what it was “engineered” to do.  It is spreading, mutating, infecting and growing relentlessly.  We must be just as relentless and just as driven in our response.  The time for warnings and advisories has passed.  It is time to move like it is a matter of life or death – it is.

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Charles S. (Sam) Faddis, Senior Partner- Artemis, LLC is a former CIA operations officer with thirty years of experience in the conduct of intelligence operations in the Middle East, South Asia and Europe. His last assignment prior to retirement in May of 2008 was as head of the CIA's terrorist Weapons of Mass Destruction unit. He took the first CIA team into Iraq in the Summer of 2002 in advance of the invasion of that country and has worked extensively in the field with law enforcement, local security forces and special operations teams. Since retirement, he has written extensively, provided training to a wide variety of government and private entities and appears regularly on radio and television.