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Speculation has been rife about the origins of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) or the Dr. Li Wenliang Virus, as journalist Elisabeth Braw has recommended it be named in honor of the hero who died for alerting the world to the virus’ deadliness. Some people want to believe China’s story that the virus mutated in bats and “jumped” to humans in the city of Wuhan’s exotic meat markets. Some scientists have asserted that the virus originated naturally, possibly in Malayan pangolins, an armadillo-like animal imported into Guangdong, China, but they have not been able to identify the point at which the virus was acquired by humans. These researchers have also ruled out laboratory development of the virus, although they did not fully explain their reasoning. Other scientists have hypothesized that a “chimera” combination of two viruses is the origin of the Coronavirus, but they can only speculate as to how this combination occurred.
Nevertheless, some people, based on circumstantial evidence, are deeply suspicious that the virus may have originated in Wuhan’s PLA bioweapon research labs or its Level Four biosafety laboratory (which has been conducting research on the SARS virus) and somehow entered Wuhan’s population to spread throughout the world. The circumstantial evidence of possible bioweapon design includes:
- The Coronavirus is an enveloped virus, which uses the host’s cell membranes to camouflage itself from a host’s defense systems, allowing it to spread more quickly and decisively.
- The protein spike through which the virus attaches itself to human cells is 10-times stronger than the SARS virus (although some scientists have asserted that the protein spike could not have developed via human DNA intervention).
- The virus has a relatively long incubation period and is contagious before symptoms manifest, increasing the speed and breadth of the disease’s spread throughout a population.
- The virus has remained alive within the respiratory tract for weeks after recovery from illness, suggesting that it may remain contagious in a human host for a very long time, indeed
- The virus survives outside the human body for a longer period than most, while remaining infectious.
All of these are characteristics that a bio-WMD designer would want to include in a weaponized pathogen designed for maximum impact.
China’s massive disinformation campaign, first to hide the epidemic’s outbreak, and then to blame others for its spread and virulence deepens suspicions that the coronavirus may have been a research project that accidentally escaped into the general populace. As part of this disinformation campaign, Chinese authorities arrested Dr. Li Wenliang after he blew the whistle about the virus’s deadliness. A few days later, Chinese authorities reported that he had died from the infection. When Chinese tycoon Ren Zhiqiang criticized China’s response to the disease earlier in March, he too disappeared. And to further control information and proliferate disinformation, China has expelled American journalists.
Bio-weapons emerging weapons of mass destruction…
Early allegations that the Coronavirus might be a weaponized pathogen were discounted by some experts, but regardless of origin, the strategic impact of the virus cannot be ignored by national security experts. The effects illustrate quite clearly that bioweapons have become an emerging weapon of mass destruction (WMD) threat. As Elisabeth Braw wrote on 23 March in Foreign Policy, the virus has eliminated most “… of the U.S. stock market gains made during Donald Trump’s presidency and caused the British pound to drop to a level not seen since the early 1980s. BMW, Nissan, Daimler, Volkswagen, Fiat, Peugeot, and other carmakers have halted their manufacturing in Europe. General Motors and Ford have closed all their production in the United States.” Throughout the free world, businesses have been shuttered to contain the virus’s spread, putting millions of jobs at risk.
Malign actors around the world – Russia, North Korea, and violent non-state actors (terrorists, etc.) – are watching very closely both the impact of this crisis on and its management by, rival countries. It is hard to believe that they are not recalculating the potential strategic impact of deliberately seeding a highly contagious disease as an asymmetric opening phase of a conflict. In her article, Braw noted that Russia’s prison population contains the largest number of tuberculosis-infected individuals in the world; people who could be easily sent to another country to spread the disease and panic that could be exploited militarily.
Advanced technologies putting us more at risk?
However, the transport of infected humans into a healthy population may be a more manageable risk than other emerging challenges in the bio-WMD arena. As WMD expert and author Dr. Natasha Bajema warned at a 2019 Special Operations Command conference, trends in the proliferation and democratization of advanced technology such as additive manufacturing, advanced robotics, and synthetic biology are lowering the barriers to development and use of bio-WMD across a widening range of nefarious actors. Through the convergence of physical to digital conversion and gene sequencing technologies, DNA sequences can be reduced to bar codes and transmitted by email to a do it yourself (DIY) lab that, with the right equipment, can reconstitute the DNA, grow a contagion, release it, break down the lab, and disappear. Through email, it would easily be possible for multiple DIY labs to release the same contagion simultaneously across a large population.
Gene sequencing technology may have another national security aspect that must be contemplated. It is not farfetched that diseases could be modified to target only humans with specific genetic characteristics, such as eye color or gender. By analogy, neutron-bomb bioweapons are right around the corner.
The Coronavirus – or Wenliang virus – is a wake-up call to the U.S. national security establishment and those of our allies and partners. The bio-WMD threat is real and growing, and our collective responses to Coronavirus demonstrate quite clearly that we are not prepared.