Wuhan in China,—recognised as the epicentre of the Novel Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic— also hosts China’s only and highest- rated Level 4 microbiology laboratories, which could have been responsible for the spread of the deadly coronavirus disease or Covid-19 that has taken thousands of lives and infected hundreds of thousands.
Even though this virus has brought our lives to a near standstill, much of the commentary has focused on how it could possibly have come from bats and wild animals (like the pangolin) in the markets of Wuhan. But as Chinese laws permit the sale and eating of wild animals, why did it spread only from Wuhan? Few reports have looked beyond repeating what all the others have said: that the virus came from the wilds of Wuhan. Even some genomic medical experts hold this view.
But if you put together the evidence—and join the dots—it could have also come from the microbiology labs of Wuhan, whether by design or default. Could it be a coincidence that in August last year, the Canadian police in Winnipeg—where Canada’s only Level 4 microbiology research facility is housed—had arrested a Chinese couple on charges of stealing intellectual property? They had visited the Institute of Virology in Wuhan, wrote Sanjeeva Shukla (in his Times of India blog on March 24th).
He also states that a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) general, Zhang Shibo, former president of China’s National Defence University, had written about the effectiveness of ethnic genetic attacks in his book New Highland of War (in 2017), and that in 2015, the vice president of the Chinese Academy of Military Medical Sciences,
He Fuchu, had said that biomaterials were the new “strategic commanding heights” of warfare. Add to this the message in a book now being quoted, Unrestricted Warfare (1999), wherein the authors—both PLA colonels—had argued that ‘the first rule of unrestricted warfare is that there are no rules, with nothing forbidden’, and it begins to fall in place.
This book on unrestricted warfare proposes tactics for developing countries, in particular China, to compensate for their military inferiority vis-à-vis the US during times of conflict. It advocates hacking into websites, targeting financial institutions, terrorism, using the media, as well as conducting urban warfare.
However, while the book suggests a milder approach against weaker countries— those China wants to win over with economic initiatives—it specifically targets the US since ‘The United States breaks [UN rules] and makes new ones when these rules don’t suit [its purposes]’. Whether this work has the full blessing of the Chinese leadership isn’t yet known, but the Chinese have often used indirect messaging, such as this book, to convey their plans to their adversaries. As Sun Tzu had said: ‘If the enemy expects you to do three things, do the fourth.’
So, did the virus spread by default or design? Let us look at the timelines. While the first of Novel Coronavirus (Covid-19) case was reported in Wuhan city on December 1st, 2019, it took another two weeks for Wuhan’s doctors to confirm that the virus was spreading following contact between humans.
And by late December, hospitals in Wuhan had witnessed an ‘exponential’ rise in cases with what we know now were Novel Coronavirus (Covid-19) symptoms, even though these cases, reportedly, cannot be linked to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, despite the fact that China’s wholesale markets for animals, birds and seafood are often filthy (as video evidence has shown). Doctors like Li Wenliang, who spoke about such a disease and that it could lead to an epidemic, were disciplined for making public statements. He later died of the disease.
It was only on January 23rd that Wuhan was placed under effective quarantine. But why only Wuhan? By then, the virus had spread within China—especially to Beijing and Shanghai—and to Thailand (where a woman who had come from Wuhan, carried it) and to Japan, where a man had brought it from Wuhan.
But thousands of those infected had by then also left Wuhan for other parts of the world—as the city and the region is a global manufacturing hub—and many others continued to visit Wuhan from Italy and the EU, mainly for business reasons, unaware that they would become carriers of the virus that would, in turn, result in thousands of deaths back home.
An even larger number of people got infected when thousands of Chinese trooped back into China, specifically Wuhan, for the Chinese New Year festivities. This is just what the virus needed—thousands of people jostling together—to spread like wildfire. They then went back to Europe, the US and Iran where they reside. As a result, the numbers of those infected in such places have been rising so steeply.
Whether China was silent by design or by default—as Beijing took its time to alert the world and the World Health Organization (WHO)—only time will tell. But the possibility of a bio lab germ, having escaped (or let loose?) is always there, since at least two high-ranking Chinese officials had earlier alluded to it.
And how come they were able to contain it sooner than other countries? Would all this be accident or coincidence? In late-January, the US Department of Justice announced the arrest of a Harvard University professor, Charles Lieber (Chair of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology), for receiving $50,000 per month and another
$158,000 for other expenses as well as for his affiliation with the Wuhan University of Technology. He was also running a multi-million-dollar programme to entice other scientists to share their research expertise with China. Also arrested was a female researcher, Yen Ching Ye, of Boston University (Department of Physics, Chemistry and Biomedical Engineering), who had hidden her connections with the PLA as a lieutenant.
A third Chinese national, Jheng Zhao Zang, was arrested just as he was boarding his flight to China with 21 vials of biological materials in his baggage stolen from his American university’s research centre. His research was sponsored by Harvard University.
These arrests are part of the US Department of Justice’s ‘China Initiative’ to stop and prosecute Chinese economic espionage and theft of intellectual property, to stop the long-term Chinese campaign to steal US technologies. The US Attorney General had recently referred to China as America’s ‘primary rival’.
And the FBI director has stated that “no country poses a greater counter-intelligence threat to the US than China”. But now, with thousands of people dead in the West, there is bound to be a concern in other European countries as well about
what appears to be part of China’s ruthless agenda to emerge as the primary power in the world. However, China isn’t willing to sit quietly. It has already blamed the US for bringing the virus into China, with Iran echoing its line that the US has spread the deadly virus to cripple the Chinese economy. On the face of it, this could be justified on the grounds that the loss to China’s economy was initially projected to be around $348 billion and to the US economy about $15 billion.
But China could make up for these losses in other ways. China is—and will remain—the manufacturing centre for much of the world and will be back in demand once things limp back to normal. China has begun producing masks and medical equipment in large numbers to address global demand. Besides, there are reports that the Chinese have been buying out many companies and businesses at much lower prices in Asia and Europe at a time of panic.
The Chinese, it should be noted, always work to a plan and within a grand design laid out by the country’s leadership. In 2017, China’s paramount leader, Xi Jinping, had defined his ‘vision’ for China, in a three-and-a-half-hour speech.
One of the key targets for China would be to become a “top-ranked innovative nation by 2035 [and] a nation with pioneering global influence”. As any student of world affairs would tell you, global influence comes from a combination of economic heft and military power. All other moral grandstanding and well-meaning initiatives count for little.
The questions that must concern us are: One, are the Chinese working to a plan? Two, is the Novel Coronavirus (Covid-19) assault on the human race a test of more biological attacks to follow? And three, in India, are we ready for such future attacks?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done well to move fast to announce a nationwide lockdown. No sensible person thinks it’s a bad idea. But it could certainly have been better implemented because unlike the demonetisation announcement that had perhaps needed secrecy to catch unawares the ‘black money wallahs’, in this case, it has hurt the poor and the migrants in urban areas.
The devil lay in the details of implementation and here we were, as always, sloppy in getting things done efficiently. But to be fair to the civil services, they were not warned either. Even the army chief took a few days to announce that they were prepared. But this will be the next big threat to our lives and our economy, as it already has shown, and it doesn’t recognise borders.
Given India’s vast population, its dismal health facilities and poor connectivity, and with each state having its own operating procedures for responses, we could be in a hopeless situation in the event of a bio-chemical attack, the scale of which could be far bigger than the fatalities and infections from Novel Coronavirus (Covid-19). But what is our response capability?
A recent article in The New Indian Express (‘Germ warfare and how things are under control—as of now— but it’s unlikely to be enough when (God forbid!) we are hit by something even bigger.
China is currently putting in place five biochemical weapon labs, and ‘between them, the US, Europe, Russia and Australia have around 50 functioning or under construction labs, all under maximum-security’, says the article in The New Indian Express. Moreover, ‘Western intelligence suspects that Iran and North Korea also possess chemical weapon labs.’
But ‘the study of dangerous pathogens such as Ebola or Marburg cannot be conducted without importing the viruses into a country.’ Is that why Chinese scientists have been arrested for stealing knowhow and biochemical vials from labs in America? Historian Frank Dikotter, who has studied the history of
Whether China was silent by design or by default only time will tell. But the possibility of a bio-lab germ, having escaped (or let loose?) is always there, since at least two high-ranking Chinese officials had earlier alluded to it
prepared India is’, March 22nd) quotes Lieutenant General Vinod Bhatia, a former Director General of Military Operations: “Though the Indian Army is trained to prepare for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear attacks, the programmes are on the back burner due to lack of resources.”
The army in any case prepares for an NBC (nuclear-biological-chemical) scenario as it could unfold on a battlefield. But what about the rest of the country? We need to start preparing now for the next big attack, even by terrorists who can use biochemical weapons and not just crudely assembled bombs. Clearly, ‘janata curfew’ makes for good headlines when
rural China from 1958 to 1962 extensively, told The Independent newspaper of London in 2010 that in Mao Zedong’s ‘Great Leap Forward’, at least 45 million deaths had occurred in China in four years.
It apparently hadn’t bothered Mao. Now, as Xi Jinping makes it known in his ‘Vision 2050’ that he and the Party cadres will remain devoted to Mao’s legacy, does China care if a few hundred thousand people were to die, and if it were to lose half-a-trillion dollars, in its quest for global domination? Let’s think about that.
A version of this article was first published in openthemagazine.com of 3 April 2020