COVID-19 and Bioweapons Research

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The anthrax attacks of 2001 were carried out via mail. Anthrax was sent via the US Postal Service to members of Congress and media executives together with notes reading “Death to America,” and “Allah is great.” Five died. In the weeks following the September 11 attacks, the intent of the perpetrators was to make it appear that the anthrax was being sent by Islamic militants.

The anthrax itself was weaponized. Natural anthrax is found in the soil and rarely causes human disease. The weaponized anthrax spores were designed to easily float in the air and thereby more easily infect its victims. The weaponized anthrax was identified as originating in the U.S. government laboratories. Genetic analysis identified it to be from the Ames strain, isolated from a cow in Texas in 1981, and studied at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease (USAMRIID), Fort Detrick, Maryland. A U.S. government scientist was identified as a suspect, but he committed suicide before being taken into custody. For an analysis of how the anthrax attacks followed the playbook of the June 2001 “Dark Winter” preparedness exercise, see Whitney Webb and Raul Diego’s “All Roads Lead To Dark Winter.”

The so-called biodefense complex is inherently dangerous. While the stated intent of biodefense research is to develop the means of countering attacks – in order to do so, scientists often create virulent pathogens in order to determine the means of responding to them. The process by which microorganisms are artificially made more virulent is called “gain-in-function” research.

An example is how the H5N1 strain of influenza was manipulated in order to make it more easily transmissible among humans. One technique is to infect ferrets with successive generations of a virus. Because the ferret respiratory system has similarities to the human respiratory system at the molecular level, such a technique produces viruses that can more easily infect humans. For obvious reasons, the publication of such research was opposed by many in the scientific community.

Wuhan, the original epicenter of the current COVID-19 pandemic, has two microbiology laboratories equipped to handle pathogenic microorganisms. Such labs are designated by their biosafety levels, with BSL-4 being the highest. The Wuhan Centers for Disease Control is a BSL-2 laboratory located within 100s of meters from the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, where cases of COVID-19 were initially found. The Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) is the only declared BSL-4 laboratory in China.

The WIV is responsible for much of the coronavirus research in China. Early on in the epidemic, we learned that the virus responsible for COVID-19 is similar to the coronavirus responsible for the 2002-2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV): therefore its scientific name, SARS-CoV-2 or SARS coronavirus 2. Moreover, we learned that researchers from the WIV had collected a coronavirus from bats in Yunnan Province with 96% homology to (sharing 96% of its genes with) SARS-CoV-2. Dr. Zhengli-Li Shi, as the head of this research group, takes her place as the last author on the article.

Look at a map of China. Wuhan’s central location is what makes it a transportation hub. Yunnan province, to the Southeast, borders Laos and Myanmar. There are a thousand kilometers between Wuhan and the bat caves in Yunnan. The prevailing theory of the origins of the virus is that it made its way into humans through the exotic animal food trade. The encroachment of industrial agriculture into what is left of the wilderness created the conditions for the cross-species jump. It would have a bat virus in Yunnan somehow making the species jump into humans, possibly through an intermediary species, somewhere between Yunnan Province and a city (Wuhan) a thousand miles away.

Isn’t it a more plausible scenario that the SARS-CoV-2 was collected in the Yunnan bat caves by researchers from the WIV, brought by them to Wuhan, and somehow leaked from the laboratory? There are a lot of BSL-4 laboratories in the U.S. Leaks happen at these labs.

Note that I am not suggesting that the SARS-CoV-2 was genomically bioengineered, nor that it was created to be a bioweapon. Obviously, the SARS-CoV-2 genome is under close scientific scrutiny, and we assume that molecular biologists would be able to detect such manipulation. However, it is possible to manipulate a viral genome without a recourse to gene-splicing techniques, such as the passing multiple generations through laboratory animals, as noted above with ferrets.

The researchers at the WIV have collaborated with American researchers, however, conducted gain-of-function experiments utilizing gene-splicing techniques. See, for example, a 2015 paper published in Nature, “A SARS-like cluster of circulating bat coronaviruses shows potential for human emergence” authored by researchers mostly from the University of North Carolina (UNC), but also by collaborators from Harvard, Switzerland, and Wuhan. Dr. Zhengli-Li Shi is the second-to-last author.

Using the SARS-CoV reverse genetics system, we generated and characterized a chimeric virus expressing the spike of bat coronavirus SHC014 in a mouse-adapted SARS-CoV backbone.

That is to say, these scientists bioengineered a chimera, a Frankenvirus, from the old 2002-2003 SARS virus but with spikes from a different bat coronavirus. The Frankenvirus seems to be a pretty tough customer:

Additionally, in vivo experiments demonstrate replication of the chimeric virus in mouse lung with notable pathogenesis. Evaluation of available SARS-based immune-therapeutic and prophylactic modalities revealed poor efficacy; both monoclonal antibody and vaccine approaches failed to neutralize and protect from infection with CoVs using the novel spike protein. On the basis of these findings, we synthetically re-derived an infectious full-length SHC014 recombinant virus and demonstrate robust viral replication both in vitro and in vivo. Our work suggests a potential risk of SARS-CoV re-emergence from viruses currently circulating in bat populations.

That is, it’s hard to kill, it’s hard to immunize against, and it reproduces like gangbusters – meaning that if it got loose, it might cause a . . . wait for it . . . a pandemic.

Wait, doctors, didn’t you take the money because you said you were going to come up with a biodefense? Again, I am not suggesting that the SARS-CoV-2 was genomically bioengineered – but these scientists are actively creating highly pathogenic organisms, then reporting their work in the scientific literature. Sounds like a Pandora’s box to me.

Of note, this article was published during the period (2014-2017) while the National Institutes of Health was not funding gain-of-function research – though exceptions were made for certain institutions (such as UNC, Harvard, and the WIV). As reported by Sam Husseini, this study also received funding from the US Agency for International Development and the EcoHealth Alliance.

Weapons systems, such as nuclear weapons, missiles, or drones, are developed with the intent of gaining a military advantage over one’s enemies. Inevitably, though, enemies catch up – and the end result is proliferation. As with other weapons, the downsides, the risks, and the costs of bioweapons research are becoming more obvious. Also obvious is that we must put a stop to it.

Seiji Yamada, a native of Hiroshima, is a family physician practicing and teaching in Hawaii.