The Strategist

China and COVID-19: What Went Wrong?

29 Mar, 2020    ·   5668

Vice Admiral (Retd) Vijay Shankar speculates about the origins of the crisis in the context of transparent information-sharing for better public health preparedness

Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar
Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar
Distinguished Fellow

The history of armed conflict is intertwined with the generation of diseases. In 1155, the German Holy Roman Emperor Barbarossa poisoned water wells in Italy with human bodies as he challenged the papacy; to 1763, when the British deliberately distributed small pox-infected blankets to Native Americans. In recent history, during World War I, the Spanish flu caused a pandemic accounting for over 50 million lives. Now imagine a weaponised variant of the pathogen—genetically engineered for survival and binary in nature, with artificial intelligence implants to disable or enable the virus—and you have a controllable doomsday weapon. Manipulated pathogens are in fact the next generation of damnable biologic agents. While theories about COVID-19 being a bio-weapon have been debunked, they occur within a larger narrative, which is that of China allegedly being a leader in “toxin-based threats.” Opaqueness in Chinese information-sharing, therefore, appears to have little dividend.

China has been suspected for several years of having offensive biological agents, although these claims have been refuted by the country. If the allegation is indeed true, it is notwithstanding China having ratified the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), which prohibits the development of biological weapons and decrees destruction of existing stockpiles. In the absence of instruments for verification, the BWC has no teeth.    

What could have influenced Chinese thinking in this regard? This paper suggests three factors. The first is of a historical nature. Between 1933 and 1945, Japanese BW attacks and experimentation on Chinese populations killed thousands. China also believes that the US conducted offensive BW operations in China and Korea during the Korean War. The final motivation may have to do with the erstwhile USSR, which had a reported history of experimenting with efforts to develop deadly germs and viruses as weapons. China’s strategic cooperation in general, and knowledge of the alleged Soviet BW programme as well as the goings-on at the centre of Soviet research on the island of Vozrozhdeniye in the Sea of Aral could have inspired Chinese thinking on this mode of warfare. Strategic motivations were governed by their abstract reasoning of the nature and use of weapons of mass destruction in a life and death struggle. Today, as George Keenan suggested in 1947, China needs the spectre of a permanent enemy to justify its security apparatus, and indeed, itself.

Under Chairman Mao, from 1949 to 1977, these sensitivities led increasingly to preparation for total war. By 1978, hamstrung by the terror of the Cultural Revolution and blinkered by ideological obsession, Premier Deng Xiaoping saw the quest for strategic dominance being stymied by the absence of development and direction. He presided over a radical veering from orthodoxy and sought from society the release of dormant capitalistic energies. This kicked off one of the most impactful economic reformations of the 20th century. By 1990, in the wake of the carnage of Tiananmen and the collapse of communism in Europe, China’s military policy was dictated by Deng’s ‘24-character strategy’ which mandated a watch, wait, and build capacities approach. These capacities included the ability to wage BW. The Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao dispensations continued with Deng’s policies towards technology and innovation at large.

China’s BW strategy is seen as a declaration of their resolve to make genetic weapons instruments of “bloodless victory.” The Chinese government launched the National GeneBank in 2016. It reportedly intends to “use China’s genetic resources, safeguard national security in bioinformatics, and enhance capabilities to seize the strategic heights,” which becomes important for consideration in light of allegations about China’s possession of offensive biological agents.

The SARS Episode of November 2002 constituted a testimony to the lack of Chinese transparency, and raised suspicion of China’s involvement. The lesson to be learned was the need for unambiguity and information-sharing where infectious diseases were concerned. This did not seem to be the case in the recent outbreak of COVID-19. An examination of the chronology will suggest that while China formally notified the WHO of the outbreak on 31 December 2019, the first cases reported by the late Dr Li Wenliang (a casualty himself) were on 1 December—or could it have been even earlier?

Expert studies and circumstantial evidence alike have led to speculation about China’s quite possibly inadvertent involvement in the release of the COVID-19 virus. This sort of speculation is not unprecedented. In a 2017 Nature article, Dr Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University, is quoted saying that “the SARS virus has escaped from high-level containment facilities In Beijing multiple times.”

More recently, in March 2019, a shipment of virulent microorganisms from Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) found their way to Wuhan. The event reportedly caused a scandal, with questions about how the lethal viruses were transferred to China. The incident was traced to Chinese operatives working at NML, and led to their expulsion. The group comprised of  Dr Qiu and Dr Cheng, among others, who are suggested to have past links with BW civil-military fusion laboratories in China. The nature of Dr Qiu’s and Dr Cheng’s research is not entirely known, and the investigation is on-going.

Does conjecture about the virus’ leak from a bio lab hold up to scrutiny? What about the speculation of this being a Chinese dual-use research programme gone horrifically wrong? This would be reminiscent of the reported Soviet experiment with re-engineering pathogens within a pathogen; the first stage illness was carried by an innocuous fast spreading endemic microbe. The second pathogen would be genetic material that would cause the body to attack and break down its own vital systems.

In the midst of theories of pathogen mutation from bats to pangolin to man, and its probable leak in a bio-experiment; there are many not-so-convincing allegations of cause and conspiracies with fake news clouding perception. What is known is that COVID-19 originated in Wuhan, from where it was inflicted on mankind. How, when, and why remain unrequited questions. In this environment, it becomes increasingly important to closely monitor Chinese potential military’s activities in BW. While it may be impractical to expect China to recompense for global disruption and mass casualties, what can be imposed is the demand for verifiable transparency, and making their laboratories indubitably transparent.

Vice Admiral (Retd) Vijay Shankar is former Commander-in-Chief of the Strategic Forces Command of India.