Mystery lab 30km from virus ‘ground zero’
IT MAY just be a coincidence.
But the deadly coronavirus outbreak now sweeping the world began 30km from China's most advanced viral research laboratories - the Wuhan Institute.
The Washington Times quoted former Israeli intelligence officer Dany Shoham as claiming The Wuhan Institute of Virology is part of a secret biological weapons program.
"Certain laboratories in the institute have probably been engaged, in terms of research and development, in Chinese (biological weapons), at least collaterally, yet not as a principal facility," he asserted without corroborating evidence.
Mr Shoham says he was a Mossad lieutenant colonel specialist in biological and chemical warfare. But so far he's the only apparent expert to make such a link.
Similar stories have begun circulating in China.
Only there, the claims - which are not censored under China's strict information management regime - assert the virus is the result of a US germ warfare conspiracy.
"There is no evidence that it was a bioweapon, and any claims that it is wilfully spreads misinformation and is incredibly irresponsible," warns MIT security studies professor Vipin Narang.
China already stands accused of breaching international treaties and engaging in biological weapons research.
"Information indicates that the People's Republic of China engaged during the reporting period in biological activities with potential dual-use applications, which raises concerns regarding its compliance with the BWC," the 2019 annual US State Department report on China's arms treaty compliance warns.
"The United States has compliance concerns with respect to Chinese military medical institutions' toxin research and development because of the potential dual-use applications and their potential as a biological threat."
But Prof Narang doubts the 2019-nCoV virus is an escaped bioweapon: "It would be a terrible bioweapon because of blowback. A good bioweapon, in theory, has high lethality but low, not high, communicability."
Australian defence analyst Dr Malcolm Davis tweeted: "I'm not convinced that there is evidence yet to support the theory that this BL-4 R & D facility in #Wuhan is responsible for the #coronavirus outbreak. Its proximity is interesting though.
Obviously I'm following the 2019-nCoV #WuhanOutbreak quite closely. I'm not convinced that there is evidence yet to support the theory that this BL-4 R&D facility in #Wuhan is responsible for the #coronavirus outbreak. It's proximity is interesting though. https://t.co/NngrK67QJO— Dr. Malcolm Davis (@Dr_M_Davis) January 25, 2020
"If evidence came to the fore to support such a theory, then yes - but so far, none has. Its more likely the virus jumped from an animal into humans in the Wuhan markets."
Biowarfare has surged back onto the radar of military analysts since the advent of CRISPR gene-splicing technology. It's now more possible to manipulate and manufacture biological processes than ever before.
And given the technology has quickly become relatively cheap and common, the US Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper declared in 2016 that genome editing had become a global danger.
RAND international think tank adviser and former deputy undersecretary for science and technology in the US Daniel Gerstein painted a stark picture: "They could, for example, change a less dangerous, non-pathogenic strain of anthrax into a highly virulent form by altering the genome or recreate pathogens such as the deadly smallpox virus, which was eradicated in the wild in 1980. Or they could develop specific weapons that target either individuals or even entire races: With the right manipulations, a pathogen could be made to have greater invasiveness or virulence in a target population."
SCANDAL AND SUSPICION
It's easy to pin suspicion on the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
It's just a few suburbs away from "Ground Zero", the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market.
The Chinese Academy of Sciences site is also one of only a handful of facilities around the world publicly declared as holding Pathogen Level 4 (P4). That means it has the strict quarantine standards needed for studying the world's most deadly diseases.
A second facility in Wuhan, the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products, was declared as one of eight research facilities under the Biological Weapons Convention that China signed in 1985.
But Beijing's willingness to turn a blind eye to unethical CRISPR research was highlighted when He Jiankui announced he had gene-edited babies. Likewise, a US-based researcher last year announced he had produced a human-monkey hybrid embryo in China to avoid "legal issues" elsewhere.
Russia is also engaged in similar research. And Japan has lifted its ban on human-animal hybridisation.
Beijing, however, has specifically highlighted biological research as a national strategic priority.
Academy of Military Medical Sciences president He Fuchu said in 2015 that biomaterials were the new "strategic commanding heights" of warfare. He is now the Academy's vice-president.
And, in 2017, retired Chinese general Zhang Shibo wrote in his book War's New High Land that "modern biotechnology development is gradually showing strong signs characteristic of an offensive capability". This includes the potential for "specific ethnic genetic attacks".
Initial indications are strong that the China biowarfare link is fearmongering.
Two of the story's first promoters, the Washington Post's Bill Gertz and twitter news aggregator @IndoPac_Info, have an established track record.
In November, both repeated claims of an underwater nuclear explosion in the South China Sea.
No such signature had registered on seismic sensors. No radiation spike was recorded.
That story was eventually traced back to claims made by the Hal Turner Radio Show - a far-right American political site regularly accused of creating fake news and conspiracy theories.
Likewise, the conspiracy-theory heavy and pseudoscience-promoting Zero Hedge blog has recently attempted to link the arrest of Chinese nationals on espionage charges in Canada with the outbreak.
It's just one of several stories circulating on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter claiming the virus was made in a lab.
"This coronavirus that is sweeping China, and which has now spread to other countries - including the United States of America - is actually a biological attack being perpetrated on the United States and other countries," serial conspiracy theorist David Zublick breathlessly proclaims in one video. He presents no evidence to support his case, however.
Other panic-stricken stories, including that the 2019-nCoV has been patented since 2015, have easily been debunked.
But the scramble by credible and accredited researchers to understand the 2019-nCoV virus indicates - at this stage - that it is 96 per cent compatible with a wild bat coronavirus.
Its similarity to the SARS virus that startled the world in 2003 has been placed at 79 per cent.
So the chances of it having made the transition into humans through means such as bat soup appear to be very much the most likely scenario.
What makes this particular virus so threatening is its ability to infect others from hosts not yet displaying symptoms of the disease.