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Biohazard: A Look at China’s Biological Capabilities and the Recent Coronavirus Outbreak

Wild Blue Yonder / Maxwell AFB, AL --

 

When people think about weapons of mass destruction (WMD), they tend to think of things that go “boom.” The bigger the weapon, the bigger the boom, and the worse the impact. Past generations were taught to prepare for nuclear war. At the height of nuclear development, Bert the Turtle graced the television screens in schools across the United States, teaching children to “duck and cover” if there was an imminent attack. Nearly 70 years later, the nation still remembers Bert and his teachings. However, not all weapons need a big boom to be effective. Every day, millions of people are affected by a weapon that has the potential to do far more damage than a nuclear bomb, a weapon we cannot see, a weapon we call germs.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “biological weapons, also called germ weapons, are any number of disease-producing agents, such as bacteria, viruses, rickettsiae, fungi, toxins, or other biological agents, that may be utilized as weapons against humans, animals, or plants.”1 Throughout history, pathogens have proven to be the most destructive weapon of all. Nearly 300 million people died from smallpox in the twentieth century alone, and that was from a natural outbreak. The destructive power of an intentional attack could reach and possibly surpass that of smallpox.

However, such a weapon’s potential for destruction acts as its own deterrent to use. Biological weapons are unique in that an attempt to infect an enemy could lead to a pandemic of one’s own troops and people. Diseases have no discrimination techniques, so a small intentional release could have large unintentional side effects. Or worse, a small unintentional release could have large unintentional consequences. For example, it was speculated that the coronavirus outbreak that begin in China in 2019 could have been an unintentional consequence of alleged bioweapon research in Wuhan. This article will look into the validity of such claims, the current coronavirus situation, China’s current alleged biowarfare capabilities, and the future of biowarfare.

Coronavirus (COVID-19)

In the weeks following the spread of the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, conflicting news reports, misinformed research, and conspiracy theorists all led to allegations that China was once again building bioweapons and that this recent disease outbreak was the result of an accidental release of a new biologically engineered pathogen. At the center of the controversy was the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). WIV is one of 20 separate biomedical research institutes in CAS, but it is the only institute specializing in virology, viral pathology, and virus technology.2 It contains five research centers, including the Center for Emerging Infectious Disease, Chinese Virus Resources and Bioinformatics Center, Center of Applied and Environmental Microbiology, and the Department of Analytical Biochemistry and Biotechnology.3 Recently, it also became China’s first, and only, biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) laboratory. BSL-4 labs operate under the strictest levels of biological safety as the lab work done inside these labs often deal with dangerous and exotic microbes like Ebola, Marburg,4 and as some people originally speculated, the coronavirus.

It was in mid-January 2020 that the virus was first linked to bioweapons research at the WIV. It started as a minor rumor before turning into a full-blown conspiracy theory. It was not until The Washington Post published the main dissent titled, not so subtly, “Experts debunk fringe theory linking China’s coronavirus to weapons research” that people began to look farther than the clickbait.5 The Washington Post cites multiple US experts who use both logic and analysis to debunk the rumors. First, the WIV is not suited to bioweapons research. Any bioweapons research would likely need to remain covert, as bioweapons are outlawed by the Biological Weapons Convention. In contrast, the WIV is well-known, open, and linked with other labs around the world, including the Galveston National Laboratory in Texas.6 That sort of publicity and reputation could make it hard for the lab to operate secretly.

Second, experts in virology, including Richard Ebright, a chemical biology professor, and Tim Trevan, a biological safety expert, have indicated that there is no evidence that the virus was created. Ebright says, “Based on the virus genome and properties there is no indication whatsoever that it was an engineered virus.”7 A couple weeks later, The Financial Times reported a similar notion. The article quoted Trevor Bradford, a virus expert and global lead coronavirus investigator, who said, “The evidence we have is that the mutations [in the virus] are completely consistent with natural evolution.”8 It is a fact of life that viruses evolve, they get stronger, find ways of beating current vaccines, and sometimes transform into something entirely new. An example is the flu. Each year, researchers and medical professionals find new strands of the flu that make treating it an exercise in futility. It is theorized that the coronavirus went through a similar type of evolution as the flu does each year, making it a dangerous pathogen in its own right but not a biologically engineered one.

The Current Crisis

As of late February, the coronavirus had infected 77,253 people across the world, killed 2,250, affected 32 separate countries, and had already been found in seven US states. Two to three people are infected from every new case of coronavirus, meaning that the number of cases reported each day is growing exponentially.9 Countries around the world are setting up quarantines, implementing travel restrictions, and experiencing financial losses. A cruise ship was even refused port at multiple countries, due to COVID-19 diagnoses on board. Even the World Health Organization (WHO) is concerned.

At the end of January, WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, expressed concern at what the virus could do to a country with a limited health infrastructure, while simultaneously praising China for its quick and efficient containment. Overall, WHO declared a “public health emergency of international concern over the global outbreak of novel coronavirus.”10 It has been months since patient zero was diagnosed, and yet the outbreak shows no signs of slowing down or stopping.

The coronavirus outbreak may have been an unfortunate consequence of natural evolution, but its impact is still being felt around the world. Just imagine if the outbreak was intentional, engineered to be just a little more fatal, or released in multiple areas at the same time. But is a biological weapon attack like that probable or even possible? If it is, how much worse could this outbreak have been?

The US Centers for Disease Control is responding to an outbreak of respiratory disease caused by a novel (new) coronavirus that was first detected in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China, and which has now been detected in 32 locations internationally, including cases in the United States. The virus has been named “SARS-CoV-2” and the disease it causes has been named “coronavirus disease 2019” (abbreviated “COVID-19”).
Coronavirus
The US Centers for Disease Control is responding to an outbreak of respiratory disease caused by a novel (new) coronavirus that was first detected in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China, and which has now been detected in 32 locations internationally, including cases in the United States. The virus has been named “SARS-CoV-2” and the disease it causes has been named “coronavirus disease 2019” (abbreviated “COVID-19”).
Photo By: Centers for Disease Control
VIRIN: 200225-F-YT915-0001

(Image courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control)

Figure 1. Coronavirus. The US Centers for Disease Control is responding to an outbreak of respiratory disease caused by a novel (new) coronavirus that was first detected in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China, and which has now been detected in 32 locations internationally, including cases in the United States. The virus has been named “SARS-CoV-2” and the disease it causes has been named “coronavirus disease 2019” (abbreviated “COVID-19”).

These questions are not new, and the answers are not surprising. People have been finding ways to manipulate natural diseases for their benefit since the fourteenth century BCE. The first attempts at biological warfare were rudimentary at best, often utilizing the cadavers of the infected to attempt to infect others. The Hittites used infected cattle, the Swedes used infected plague victims, the British used contaminated blankets, and the Japanese used flea bombs. No matter what the method or disease, nations throughout history have been fascinated by the destructive power of diseases, and China is no exception. China has shown interest in biological weapons, biodefense, and even genetic weapons—a new subfield of biological weapons

China’s Biological History

In 1952 and 1984, the People’s Republic of China signed the Geneva Protocol and Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) respectively.11 During World War II, China was the victim of countless biological attacks by Japan, leading to Beijing’s future efforts to develop a stronger biodefense infrastructure and a biotechnology industry with substantial dual-use capabilities that can be used for both biodefense and bioweapons. Because of China’s experience with biological attacks, Beijing maintains that it does not have an offensive biological program, but its dual-use infrastructure is plenty big enough to accommodate a shift in that public policy.12 Despite these declarations, many have suspected that China has maintained a biological weapons program since before the signing of the BTWC.

A 2005 US Department of State compliance report noted that “China maintains some elements of an offensive [biological weapon] capability in violation of its BTWC obligations. Despite China’s declarations to the contrary, indications suggest that China maintained an offensive [biological weapon] program before acceding to the Convention in 1984.”13 Since signing the BTWC, China has been a stringent supporter of the treaty, desiring to improve both the verification mechanism of the treaty as well as strengthen export controls to prevent the proliferation of biological materials. However, according to a US intelligence official, China was the biggest export violator of all, as it had sold dual-use equipment and vaccines with both civilian medical applications and biological weapons applications. These exports likely turned into the beginnings of the Iranian biological weapons program. Then in 2006, China updated its export control list to restrict 14 additional biological agents from being exported from the mainland.14 Despite these actions, it is still believed that China has helped Iran and other Middle Eastern nations build their biological weapons programs.

Reports from the United States in 2010, 2012, and 2014 all state essentially the same thing, that China likely possesses a biological weapons program, but the extent of that program remains unknown to the public.15 According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, it is clear that “China possesses the required technology and resources to mass-produce traditional [biological weapon] agents as well as expertise in aerobiology.”16 Today, it is likely that China’s current dual-use infrastructure acts as the basis for its offensive biological capability.

The 2005 US Department of State report also identifies two facilities that have links to an offensive biological weapons program: the Chinese Ministry of Defense’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences (AMMS) Institute of Microbiology and Epidemiology (IME) in Beijing, and the Lanzhou Institute of Biological Produces (LIBP).17 China responds that the former is a biodefense-focused facility and the latter is a vaccine production facility. In addition to these two central laboratories, it is estimated that there are at least 50 other laboratories and hospitals being used as biological weapons research facilities.

China’s dual-use infrastructure also gives outsiders an idea of the composition of its offensive program. In 2007, China created a 20-year plant to study natural and human-made epidemics to create protective equipment for biodefense.18 It was part of China’s very public biodefense efforts. China is also known for its advancements in dispersal and delivery systems. A journal article titled, “China’s Biological Warfare Programme: An Integrative Study with Special Reference to Biological Weapons Capabilities” reports that

It is fairly clear that certain RF have fully mastered the aerobiological technologies needed for effective dispersal of BWA, both pathogens and toxins, and probably infected vectors (insects) as well. The quality, extensiveness, and characteristics of aerobiological works—including the component of nano-aerobiology—conducted by the related facilities, unambiguously lead to that postulation. They are also able, in all likelihood, to construct the functional conjunction combining dispersal devices, various warheads and delivery systems—including surface-to-surface missiles—in terms of operational biological weaponry.19

This report makes it clear that China has an advanced capability for deploying and dispersing aerosolized biological weapons. This sort of advanced capability is especially worrying because aerosolized diseases are the most contagious type of disease and have the potential to infect the largest number of people.

However, an advanced biological weapons program is not enough to classify as a threat; there also needs to be a real intent to use those weapons. When it comes to China’s intention, it is possible that China would not choose to use biological weapons in any capacity because of the suffering the country saw due to Japan’s use of Shigella and plague against the nation. During the 1991 BTWC Review Conference, the Chinese delegation stated, “Of bacteriological weapons, China has always advocated the complete prohibition and thorough destruction of biological weapons and pursues a policy of not developing, producing, or stockpiling this type of weapon.”20 More recently, the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated in 2011 that China continues to support the “complete prohibition and thorough destruction of all kinds of weapons of mass destruction, including biological weapons.”21 At the same time, China was not involved in the BTWC negotiations and, before signing the treaty, ensured the inclusion of a clause that meant the treaty was only binding if all other countries in the treaty were also following the guidelines, essentially giving the state an out to not only pursue biological weapons but to use them if necessary.22 This action indicates that the Chinese wish to leave the possibility of using biological weapons open as a policy option, which in turns means a certain amount of willingness to utilize the weapons if the need arose. Overall, China may have the capability, but Beijing may not have the will to put its own people at risk, which is what makes the new subfield of genetic weapons both fascinating and frightening.

China, CRISPR, and Gene Editing

In November 2018, Chinese scientist He Jiankui of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen China announced that he used the gene-editing technique CRISPR-Cas9 to create genetically modified human babies.23 Using embryos created from their parents’ eggs and sperm, He performed what he calls gene surgery to modify their genetics to better protect them from human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) because the babies’ father is HIV positive. More specifically, He “deleted a region of a receptor on the surface of white blood cells known as CCR5 [using] CRISPR-Cas9.”24 In his statement, he claims to have used this same technique to edit seven embryos, but this was the first to result in a successful pregnancy and birth.25 Previously, CRISPR-Cas9 had never been used in altering the genome of embryos.

CRISPR-Cas9 is “a unique technology that enables geneticist and medical researchers to edit parts of the genome by removing, adding, or altering sections of DNA sequence.”26 The CRISPR acronym refers to “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” that are repetitions of the base sequences of DNA, while Cas-9 refers to a specific protein that can act like scissors to cut parts of DNA, allowing it to be rearranged.27 Laboratories all around the world are researching the possibility of using CRISPR-Cas9 to cure diseases and prevent other diseases in offspring, for example HIV. China investigated He’s claims and found them to be accurate. In 2019, the Chinese government investigated He for ethics violations and possible law violations. He has since been fined 3 million yuan (430,000 USD) and will spend the next three years in jail.28 His breakthrough, if truly successful, would be monumental for the scientific community, but it could also mean the start of a new threat era.

Gene Editing: The New WMD

US officials now see CRISPR gene editing as a serious threat to national security. James Clapper, a former US Director of National Intelligence, added gene editing to a list of threats posed by WMD and proliferation back in 2016.29 The invention of CRISPR has made gene editing far easier to successfully use. Clapper says, “Given the broad distribution, low cost, and accelerated pace of development of this dual-use technology, its deliberate or unintentional misuse might lead to far-reaching economic and national security implications.”30 The threat from gene-editing techniques, like CRISPR, comes from their dual-use attributes and the possibility that they could be used for something other than normal scientific developments. There is concern that CRISPR could be used to make genetically engineered killer mosquitos, plagues that target and wipeout specific crops, and possibly even viruses that can snip people’s DNA.31

Another possibility is using CRISPR to alter diseases in a way that they only target certain genes. For example, it might be possible to use CRISPR to design diseases to seek people out with certain genetics, like those with Down syndrome or autism. Going a step even further, it might be possible to use CRISPR to alter diseases to target entire races by focusing the disease on a certain genetic trait. In this way, China could, hypothetically, build a disease that targets the Japanese and release it, without worrying about it infecting China’s own people. This may sound like a science-fiction movie plot, but it is no longer inconceivable. Not only can genes be edited, but China is already successfully doing it.

Conclusion

The next time you hear someone cough or watch a child wipe their nose on their sleeve, do not think it means that you need to duck and cover for protection, but it is important to recognize the threat caused by germs and begin thinking about how to protect ourselves from pandemics in the future. The world was lucky that the coronavirus outbreak was not indicative of a biologically engineered disease, but that luck may run out in the future. China is leading the world in biological research and gene editing, but it is not the only country considering these options. Biological weapons are not a thing of science fiction, and China’s alleged program is only the beginning.

Corey Pfluke

Corey Pfluke (courtney.pfluke@gmail.com) graduated with a master’s of science in defense and strategic studies from Missouri State University in May 2019. She holds a bachelor’s of science in Mandarin Chinese and a bachelor of arts in global studies from Missouri State University. She was recently awarded distinction on her graduate thesis titled, “An Examination of the Potential Threat of a State-Sponsored Biological Attack against the United States: A Study of Policy Implications.” She currently works as a treaty analyst for Lockheed Martin.

Notes

1. Barry R. Schneider, “Biological Weapon,” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/.

2. “Wuhan Institute of Virology, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS),” Wuhan Branch, Chinese Academy of Sciences, April 2007, http://english.whb.cas.cn.

3. Ibid.

4. Arthur Trapotsis, “Do you know the difference in Laboratory Biosafety Levels 1, 2, 3 & 4?” Consolidated Sterilizer Systems, 2020, https://consteril.com/.

5. Adam Taylor, “Experts Debunk Fringe Theory Linking China’s Coronavirus to Weapons Research,” Washington Post, 29 January 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Clive Cookson, “Coronavirus was not Genetically Engineered in a Wuhan Lab, says Expert,” Financial Times, 14 February 2020, https://www.ft.com/.

9. “COVID-19 Coronavirus Outbreak,” Worldometer, 21 February 2020, https://www.worldometers.info.

10. Tim Newman, “Coronavirus: WHO Declares a Public Health Emergency,” Medical News Today, 31 January 2020, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/.

11. “China,” NTI, November 2014, https://www.nti.org/.

12. “Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments,” US Department of State, August 2012, https://www.state.gov/.

13. Ibid.

14. “China Revises Export Control List for Dual-use Biological Agents,” Xinhua, 28 July 2006, https://www.lexisnexis.com/.

15. “Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments,” U.S. Department of State, July 2014, https://www.state.gov/.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. “China to Establish Anti-Bioterrorism System,” Xinhua, 26 June 2007, https://en.ce.cn/.

19. Dany Shoham, “China’s Biological Warfare Programme: An Integrative Study with Special Reference to Biological Weapons Capabilities,” Journal of Defence Studies 9, no. 2 (April 2015), 145.

20. “Position of Principle of the Chinese Delegation on the Biological Weapons Convention and Its Third Review Conference,” BWC Third Review Conference, 20 September 1991, https://www.unog.ch/.

21. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, “The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention,” 7 April 2011, https://www.mfa.gov.cn/.

22. Eric Croddy, “China’s Role in the Chemical and Biological Disarmament Regimes,” Nonproliferation Review 9, no. 1 (Spring 2002), 34.

23. Rob Schmitz, “Gene-Editing Scientist’s ‘Actions Are A Product of Modern China’,” NPR, 5 February 2019, https://www.npr.org/.

24. Dennis Normille, “CRISPR Bombshell: Chinese Researcher Claims to have Created Gene-Edited Twins,” Science Magazine, 26 November 2018, https://www.sciencemag.org/.

25. Ibid.

26. “What Is CRISPR-Cas9,” Your Genome Organization, https://www.yourgenome.org/.

27. “What are Genome Editing and CRISPR-Cas9,” US National Library of Medicine, 12 March 2019, https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/.

28. Julia Hollingsworth and Isaac Yee, “Chinese scientist who edited genes of twin babies is jailed for 3 years,” CNN World, 30 December 2019, https://www.cnn.com/.

29. Antonio Regalado, “Top U.S. Intelligence Official Calls Gene Editing a WMD Threat,” Technology Review, 9 February 2016, https://www.technologyreview.com/.

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid.


 

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