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In the last one hundred years, over 500 million people have lost their lives due to infectious diseases. Millions of these deaths were due to the deliberate release of toxins, mainly by the Japanese during their invasions of China, during World War II. There have been two international treaties in the year 1925 and 1972, which prohibited biological weapons, but they have mostly lagged in stopping countries from performing offensive weapons research, and large-scale creation of biological weapons. And as human beings’ knowledge of the disease-causing agents, viruses, bacteria and toxins advances, it is rightful to be fearful, that altered pathogens could make up confounding agents for biological warfare.
How We Are Where We Are Today
On June 13, 2012, a sexagenarian Saudi man got admitted to a private hospital in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He had a weeklong history of fever, cough, shortness of breath, and expectoration. He was a non-smoker and was not receiving any long-term medications.
This man was assigned to Egyptian virologist Dr. Ali Mohamed Zaki. He isolated the patient and extracted a previously unfamiliar coronavirus from his lungs. The virologist’s diagnostics failed to identify the causative agent. He reached out to Ron Fouchier for his advice. Ron Fauchier is a distinguished virologist at the Erasmus Medical Center (EMC) in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. This Coronavirus sample was later attained by Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) in Winnipeg, directly from Fouchier. The NML is Canada’s only level-4 facility. This lab is equipped to handle the world’s deadliest diseases, which include Ebola, SARS, and Coronavirus, etc.
In the year 2019, the virus sample was reportedly stolen from the Canadian lab, by a group of a scientist of Chinese descent, working at NML. There are conflicting reports of the fate of Chinese scientists. Unconfirmed reports suggest that these scientists had despatched the stolen sample to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Hubei. At this institute experiments and alterations on the virus were conducted. There are many theories about, how the virus escaped from the level-4 lab in Wuhan, however, that is beyond the scope of this composition.
An unpublished paper authored by Indian scientists seems to augment the notion of alterations in the virus by inferring that the virus’s protein sequence included elements of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The authors, for reasons unknown, voluntarily withdrew the paper, but the proposed linkage was caught by many netizens, including websites such as Zero Hedge, which were already claiming that the novel coronavirus was weaponized by Chinese scientists. An article by Gulfaraz Khan in the ‘Virology Journal’ echoed similar views. The article claimed that the virus had mutated. When it was first discovered in Saudi Arabia, it wasn’t getting transmitted from human to human. However, something changed in the virus in the intervening period. Thus, the Wuhan version is labeled as NCoV19 instead of simply NCoV. The latter is not contagious, while the former is spreading rapidly throughout the world as these words are written. In earlier reported coronavirus outbreaks, SARS in China in 2003, and MERS in Saudi Arabia in 2012, the virus was spreading from animals to people. However, mutated NCoV19 is spreading from human to human, making it the deadliest virus in modern times. Let us have a look at the types of Coronavirus.
Human Coronavirus Types
The name Coronaviruses comes from the crown-like spikes on the virus’s surface. Human coronaviruses are not a new finding but were first identified in the mid-60s. There are seven types of coronaviruses that can infect people. Most familiar names are:
- MERS-CoV (the beta coronavirus that causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS)
- SARS-CoV (the beta coronavirus that causes a severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS)
- SARS-CoV-2(the novel coronavirus that causes coronavirus disease 2019 or NCoV19)
The Bioweapon Roadmap
Though the world always looks at China with the lens of suspicion, there are over 17 countries, who are suspected of having biological weapons programs: Canada, China, Cuba, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Japan, Libya, North Korea, Russia, South Africa, Syria, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Illustration Courtesy: americanscientist.org
Some of the early examples of the use of bioweapons are:
- Tatar(Mongols) in the 14th century against the Crimean
- British Army in the 18th century against native Americans
- Germans during WWI against Allied Forces
The bioweapon hysteria caught the United States and Japan during WWII. Early bioweapons like anthrax, smallpox, plague, cholera, and tularemia were simple, but deadly viruses of their time. The rising stars of the world were striving for more. The United States started investing heavily in Biological Weapons during the Presidentship of Reagan, and the trend continued in the Bush Sr and Clinton era. The US vehemently denies the research work and the existence of stockpiles. However, it failed to explain the anthrax attacks on Congressmen, soon after 9/11. The investigations were never brought to any logical conclusion for the very obvious aporia. North Korea and Russia also supposedly have very advanced bioweapons program. Russian President Boris Yeltsin had, in fact, admitted that the Soviet Union had a biological weapons program, in violation of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. The later regimes continue to deny their existence.
Types of Diseases and Causative Agents: Courtesy americanscientist.org
China, a late entrant into the bioweapon world, in the 80s, was a quick learner. The intent was clearly seen in their resolve and talks. Gen. Chi Haotian was the Chinese Defense Minister from 1993-2003. In a secret speech, two decades ago, he addressed a high-level Communist Party cadres. He laid down the Chinese plans and requirements of Bioweapons in very clear terms. He started:
- China has an issue of land and living spaces.
- Chinese people should go out of the country and conquer lands in which a “New China” could be built by “colonization.
- The United States stands in China’s way, and it will never allow China to occupy other countries, to build New and larger China.
- Only large continents/countries like the United States, Canada, Australia, and Africa have vast lands to serve our need for mass colonization.
- Nuclear weapons would not solve our problems. The answers to our problems are biological weapons.
Today the United States, Russia, and China have their own ‘Biological Warfare Programs’, which are in a very advanced stage, encompassing research & development, production, and weaponization capabilities.
The Scary Present
Zhang Shibo is a retired Chinese general and former president of the National Defense University. He states, “Modern biotechnological development is gradually showing strong signs, and characteristic of an offensive capability,” including the possibility that “specific ethnic genetic attacks” could be employed. The PLA is proposing a military application for biology and pushing for its intersections with other disciplines, including brain science, supercomputing, and artificial intelligence. A similar feat has already been achieved by a team of scientists, at Tufts University, in the US. They have created xenobot, tiny robots made from frog skin and heart cells that can walk, work together and heal themselves.
If these breakthroughs fall in the hands of rogue nations or terrorists, then we are starting at a catastrophe. It is no wonder, that Professor Charles Lieber of Harvard University was arrested by the FBI on 28 Jan 2020. Lieber faces charges of trading knowledge with other countries for money and lying about it. In a very strange turn of events, Frank Plummer of National Microbiology Laboratory, Winnipeg, Canada, mysteriously died in suspicious circumstances in Kenya, on 4th Feb 2020. He was at the forefront of the research on Saudi SARS Coronavirus and was working on Coronavirus (HIV) vaccine.
Black Biology – A War of Ethics
Today, China stands neck to neck with the western world in terms of biotechnology. In 2016, an AMMS(Academy of Military Medical Sciences, China) doctoral researcher published a paper, “Research on the Evaluation of Human Performance Enhancement Technology,” which illustrated CRISPR-Cas(CRISPR-Cas is a genome-editing tool) as one of three primary technologies that might boost troops’ combat efficacy. The research looked at the potency of the drug ‘Modafinil’, which has applications in cognitive enhancement. ‘Cognitive Enhancement’ is Hacking the Brain and increasing its efficacy. He acknowledged that the CRISPR-Cas as a “military deterrence technology has great potential. In November 2018, Chinese scientist ‘He Jiankui’ of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, declared that he used the gene-editing technique CRISPR-Cas9 to create genetically modified human babies. He performed what he calls gene surgery to modify their genetics. Previously, CRISPR-Cas9 had never been used in altering the genome of embryos. CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing is an astronomical feat in the field of life sciences, as well as, a serious threat to world security in the wrong hands. The invention of CRISPR has made gene editing far easier. It’s deliberate or unintentional misuse might lead to far-reaching economic and national security implications. Experts are concerned that CRISPR could be used to make genetically engineered killer mosquitos, plagues that target and wipeout specific crops, and possibly even viruses that can snip people’s DNA.
Three-dimensional enzyme DNA strands editing: Courtesy sciencealert.com
Another likelihood of using CRISPR is, to modify diseases, in a way that they only target certain genes. For example, it might be possible that CRISPR can be designed to alter diseases to seek people out with certain genetics, like those with Down syndrome or autism. Further research might make it possible to use CRISPR to modify diseases to target a whole race by directing the disease on a certain genetic trait. In this way, any rouge nation could, hypothetically, build a disease that targets the Indians, and release it without worrying about it infecting its own people. This screams of a science-fiction movie plot, but it is no longer unimaginable. Using a gene-editing process a terrorist in Pakistan or a biologist in North Korea can fashion a microbe that mimics the transmissibility and lethality of smallpox, or any such deadly diseases, with technology ordered online for less than $200.
The low cost and easy access to genomic technologies make it feasible for such weapons to be deployed by almost any attacker. Even small alterations are sufficient to create hazardous effects: A single mutation was all it took to modify Zika from a moderately routine infection to a brain-damaging infection in infants. The reality is, that there would be no way of realizing, who initiated such an attack. Perpetrators could even manufacture, and discharge several deadly pathogens at the same time, hindering our ability to respond with widespread confusion.
Today the world is at crossroads. On the one hand, modern biology is so promising and curative, on the other it just may not be worth it. Humankind knows that the First World War was chemical; and the Second World War was nuclear. Is it ready for the Third World War, which in all likelihood would be – ‘Biological’?
1. Biowarfare and Terrorism – Francis A. Boyel