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CWA # 285, 13 May 2020

On Conspiracy Theories
Is COVID-19 a Bio-weapon from China?

  N. Manoharan

Those who advocate 'bio-weapon theory' opine that COVID-19 was a kind of "rehearsal" by China to take on, especially the West.


A series of lawsuits have been filed world over, especially in the United States, against China fixing liability on the origin and spread of COVID-19.  One such case includes by the All India Bar Association. Interestingly, a reputational damage suit was filed in China for the use of the term "China Virus" to describe COVID-19 by none other than the President of the United States. The principal point of these lawsuits, revolves around one question: Was COVID-19 a bio-weapon employed by China against its "enemies"? 

There is no dispute on the origin of this strain of coronavirus has created unprecedented havoc on mankind. It came from China. The concept of 'Middle Kingdom' applies more aptly in this context. However, was it a bio-weapon is what requires thorough enquiry and an objective answer. 

The Bio-Weapon Theorists
Those who advocate 'bio-weapon theory' opine that COVID-19 was a kind of "rehearsal" by China to take on, especially the West. Some go to the extent of saying that "this version of the corona was genetically modified to target certain categories of population." They cite numerous infections and casualties in Europe and the US despite the availability of best medical facilities. Studies by the People's Liberation Army (PLA), in this regard, are pointed out. For instance, Unrestricted Warfare (1999) by Colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui talks about "the significance of alternatives to direct military confrontation, including international policy, economic warfare, attacks on digital infrastructure and networks, and terrorism." National Defence University's Science of Military Strategy (2017) discusses new types of biological warfare.

According to Nuclear Threat Initiative, an international body that works on preventing catastrophic attacks with weapons of mass destruction and disruption—nuclear, biological, radiological, chemical and cyber, "China possesses the required technology and resources to mass-produce traditional BW (biological weapon) agents as well as expertise in aerobiology." 

BSL-4 laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology is part of China's research efforts to study on man-made and natural epidemics. The US State Department, in its annual reports, highlighted the issue of China engaging in "biological activities with potential dual-use applications". The United States also raised concerns on "transfers of dual-use items from Chinese entities to Iranian government entities." Seen in this context, US President Donald Trump terming COVID-19 as "China Virus" did not create much stir in the United States. 

China and the Bio-Warfare: Is COVID-19 a bio-weapon?
The figuring of bio-warfare in the Chinese military literature, or having the bio-weapons capability or having dual-use technologies may not directly translate to China developing or employing bio-weapons in some form of the other. China always maintained that as a victim of bioagents employed by Japan during the Second World War, it is against any development and deployment of bio-weapons for military purposes. Beijing is a signatory to Geneva Protocol and Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention and has displayed its commitment to comply with the Convention by putting in place requisite domestic legal and institutional structures. Nevertheless, China's activities in nuclear, missile, weapons proliferation and its overall power projection have raised doubts on Chinese intentions including on bio-weapons.

There is no evidence to suggest COVID-19 is a bio-weapon rehearsal from China and at the best remains as one of the conspiracy theories. Some Chinese go to the extent of reversing the allegation that it was, in fact, the US Army that smuggled corona inside Wuhan and made it the epicentre, which once again is without any basis. Epidemiologists strongly argue that COVID-19 was not a human manipulated strain and hence cannot be a "genetic weapon" aimed at specific communities. At this juncture of building itself as a world power, China would not even imagine getting into such an act that would spell doom on its rise. Beijing is smart enough to know that its economic growth cannot be at the cost of the fall of the entire world. Ships rise with the tide indeed. 

Unlike SARS and MERS, COVID-19 did not enjoy a high level of lab safety, which was a mistake. Hence, the possibility of a lab leak cannot be ruled out. Hunan Seafood Market, believed to be the ground zero of the outbreak, is only 300 metres away from the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention. There are unverified reports that suggest some scientists making a quick buck by selling lab specimens in the market. In any case, China is not new to lab leaks in the past: SARS leak in 2004 from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention; brucellosis outbreak from an accident in Lanzhou Veterinary Research Institute in 2019 are few examples to cite. In should be noted that after the present pandemic, the fact that the Chinese leadership has been emphasizing on increasing lab safety in the country gives credence to this theory of the origin and spread.

Between four beliefs, the truth lies somewhere
Truth on origin and spread of pandemics matters, both for the present and the future. If it was due to lab leak, then lab safety needs to be improved by manifold not just in China, but all over the world. If the origin and spread was a deliberate bio-weapon deployed by China, then Beijing is liable. If the spread was meant for economic and political gains, China deserves severe sanctions. If the spread was due to sheer lethargy by the Chinese administration, China owes an apology to the entire world. The truth lies in one of these four.

However, all these points at one thing in common: our understanding of China requires serious attention and action. 
 


Dr N Manoharan is with the Department of International Studies, Political Science and History, CHRIST (Deemed to be University), Bengaluru 

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