What is the most interesting thing about Coronavirus [COVID-19]?

Coronavirus has devastated swathes of China and infected tens of thousands in Italy, Iran, South Korea and northern Europe. Experts predict it could infect half the world’s population in its lifetime–some say it is here to stay, much as is flu or the common cold. But coronavirus may have a dark, secret history, deep in the bowels of Wuhan’s National Biosafety Laboratory, part of the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

[This article also appears on Medium. Read more pieces about China here, here and here.]

Where did coronavirus come from? “The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market,” you say

Spoken, heard, read and written across the world, the story goes that the virus spontaneously hopped from animal to animal, living and/or dead, in a Wuhan wet market. Images circulated of the cheek-by-jowl bustle of such places. 

Incidentally, the Wikipedia page for the market in question lists among its wares some very peculiar items, at least, by ‘western standards’. Long before the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market made a name for itself as the so-called birthplace of this particular strain of coronavirus, it was a marketplace for rabbit organs, spotted deer, koalas and/or beavers, camel, wolf puppies and, for good measure, Emmental cheese. 

It is the perfect story. We in the West love to read about what the Chinese are prepared to eat. We fetishise the Chinese propensity for eating every part of the animal, and blindly condemn the consumption of animals such as dogs (despite tucking into an equally intelligent and emotionally attuned animal, the humble pig, as a national pastime). It was one of the first questions I was asked upon returning from a stint in Chengdu in 2017 – “Did you eat dog?” I was almost sorry to disappoint.

But the story stands on shaky legs. The first documented cases of Covid-19 were among people who may never have set foot in the much mythologised seafood market. 

Sometimes the truth is an even better story

The truth may be more insidious, less banally cartoonish. Biological warfare, aka the development and deployment of bio-weapons, has been part of reality’s fabric for longer than you would care to think–much longer. Our shared history includes stories of Roman soldiers dipping their swords, and Scythian archers their arrows, into cadavers and faeces, causing their victims to be infected with tetanus. There are those who argue that the Black Death resulted from deliberate germ warfare.

Bio-weapons are defined as living organisms or replicating entities (this latter includes viruses, which are not universally considered ‘alive’). Bio-weaponry has always been difficult to control, and merciless when unleashed. In the last century, we have developed increasingly sophisticated bio-weapons for use during WWI, WWII and beyond. War strategists now have the ability to specifically target personnel, crops, livestock or fisheries. 

In Britain, the 1950s saw the weaponisation of a variety of diseases such as plague, tularaemia, brucellosis and vaccinia viruses. At the same time, the United States Army Biological Warfare Laboratories were doing the same. National-level policies to ban the use of biological weapons date back to 1969, when the UK and the Warsaw Pact introduced proposals to the UN.

Coronavirus: “Hopefully it won’t last long since it was made in China”

In February, the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology released a new directive to those in its employ, titled: “Instructions on strengthening biosecurity management in microbiology labs that handle advanced viruses like the novel coronavirus.”

In China, as in many other countries, there are microbiology labs which conduct in-depth research into bacterial, viral and fungal diseases. Laboratories are given a Biosafety Level (or Containment Level in Canada). Levels of precaution ascend according to the Biosafety Level. For example, at Level 1, laboratory personnel must wash their hands upon entry. 

Biosafety Level 4 microbiology labs are used for diagnostic work and research on easily transmitted pathogens which can cause fatal disease. Examples include a number of viruses known to cause viral haemorrhage fever, such as the Ebola and Lassa viruses. Level 4 laboratories also work with Variola virus, the causative agent of smallpox. These are the realm of protective suits and disinfectant tanks, autoclaves and chemical showers. They must have seamless edges to allow for easy cleaning. 

There is precisely one microbiology lab in all of China that handles “advanced viruses like the novel coronavirus”, and it is located in the heart of the coronavirus pandemic – in the city of Wuhan. To be clear: this is the only laboratory on Chinese soil that handles viruses such as the novel coronavirus, and it is the city at the epicentre of the outbreak.

Exhibit B: Bio warfare expert Chen Wei is in charge of containing the outbreak

This is the intriguing fact that the top biological warfare expert of the People’s Liberation Army of China, Major General Chen Wei, is the woman drafted in to Wuhan at the end of January with the task of containing the outbreak. 

Aside from it being evidently uncontainable, this is striking for how it looks, diplomatically. Chen has been researching coronaviruses since 2003’s SARS outbreak. She has also been through the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s doors more than once before. Such a dispatch rings alarm bells, especially when compounded with the notion that this is exactly the type of place where a coronavirus would be artificially developed.

The scariest part

To me, the most frightening thing about all of this is not the notion that China has the capacity, or even the political will, to develop new strains of a deadly virus. As a cynical citizen of the West, I rest on the presumption that most of the world’s most powerful countries are either doing something similar, or at the very least have the political will to. 

Despite near universal ratification of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, stories abound about offensive biological weapons programs, in Russia and beyond. ProCon lists Algeria, China, Egypt, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Russia and Syria as Maybe/Likely in possession of biological weapons. I would not be surprised to learn of clandestine bio-weaponry programs in Europe or North America.

So no, that China is capable and/or willing is not the most frightening thing. The most disquieting part, if this is true, is that China lacks the capacity to contain the virus. If it got out of the lab, the most concerning thing is that it got out of the lab. The NY Post writes that China has unleashed a plague on its own people. Again, if the rumours are true, it has unleashed a plague on the whole world







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