The idea of biological warfare has been with us over the centuries. You can start with bits of Thucydides’ vividly ugly description the Plague of Athens in 430 B.C.E.:
Strong fevers in the head and a burning redness in the eyes of those who had previously been healthy, and for no apparent reason … breathing took on a foul and unpleasant smell … pain descended to the chest … settled into stomach and caused it to release secretions of bile … tiny blisters and ulcers … unquenchable thirst … progressed to the intestines … attacked the genitals …
Mycotoxins, biological agents that can occur in nature from rotting or spoiled food or grain, would produce that sort of horrible death. Thucydides briefly considered the possibility that the enemies of Athens mixed toxin-laden grain in shipments to Athens.
Over centuries, armies have thrown dead infected animals over castle walls. Japan dropped bio-bombs on China in World War II, and Saddam planned to do it to Israel. “Yellow Rain” was spread in Cambodia, Laos and Afghanistan by plane, artillery shell, booby-traps and handheld weapons. Anthrax was sent through the mail.
Today, it must be said that there is no consensus on the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, although its birthplace appears to have been Wuhan, China. Suspicion falls on laboratories in Wuhan, and perhaps elsewhere, that were engaged in advanced coronavirus research.
Speculation abounds, but some things are clear.
The outbreak was hidden, perhaps for as long as two months, and information from doctors and nurses has been suppressed and, in some cases, experts have simply disappeared. In one of the most important early cases, Li Wenliang, a doctor who was severely reprimanded for criticizing the government, was pronounced dead from coronavirus even before he actually died. In other cases, false or misleading information has been aired, including the WHO late-January pronouncement that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission of the disease.
To complicate matters, in November 2018 a scientist from Wuhan was detained in Detroit with what the FBI later reported “may be viable Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) materials.” The Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate of the FBI “assesses foreign scientific researchers who transport undeclared and undocumented biological materials into the United States in their personal carry-on and/or checked luggage almost certainly present a U.S. biosecurity risk.”
A related investigation was carried out late last year in Canada involving a Winnipeg Level 4 lab, which does research with the most deadly pathogens, and a researcher who made multiple visits to Wuhan doing “third party funded” work in Chinese labs. Canadian authorities deny any link to COVID-19.
Unfortunately, the amount of public information is very limited, and the U.S. and Canadian governments may be highly reluctant to reveal what they know.
But while there is no consensus on the origins of COVID-19, there is no doubt that it has been a bonanza for states and terrorists who now know a lot more about critical vulnerabilities of big powers including the United States and NATO, as well as Russia and China.
• The spread of biological toxins, including viruses, can be very broad, even global.
• Manufacturing and distribution systems can be significantly harmed.
• First Responder and hospital systems lack surge capacity and can be overwhelmed.
• There is a shortage of medical supplies from simple facial masks and hand disinfectants to critical equipment such as ventilators and pharmacological supplies.
• Military operations can be delayed, re-purposed or simply halted; China is ramping up military operations in the South China Sea.
• Economic activity is severely reduced and markets in capitalist countries are stressed and losing value at depression levels.
• Producing vaccines and effective treatments is time consuming and uncertain, with most projections assuming a year before vaccines are widely available.
• Response measures can over weeks possibly “flatten the curve” of infection, buying time, but can’t stop the spread of the infection.
• An irresponsible press and media can spread unrest and panic, undermining trust in a government’s ability to cope with a bio-war crisis.
• The same media helps a bio-terror state use deception to hide responsibility while at the same time seeking significant political, economic and military advantages in the midst of a crisis. Although in this case, China may not be reaping the benefits it expected: Spain, Turkey and Georgia have tossed out defective coronavirus test kits from China, while the Netherlands and France have recalled tens of thousands of defective Chinese-origin face masks.
The good news is that the experience of the world with the spread of pandemic has revealed the West’s shortcomings not only to those who would be our enemies, but to those who would put in place adequate response systems for the future.
• Stephen Bryen is former head of the Defense Technology Security Administration. Shoshana Bryen is senior director of the Jewish Policy Center.