Geopolitics

COVID-19 Outbreak in China –An Intent Gone Wrong?
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 17 Mar , 2020

“A catastrophe waiting to happen has now happened “said Dr. Francis Boyle[1], drafter of the US Bio-weapons Act [Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989] and author of Bio warfare and Terrorism (2015). He further claims that – coronavirus (2019-nCoV)[2] was certainly an offensive biological warfare weapon[3]. A study by Indian scientists based at the Indian Institute of Technology and University of Delhi confirm this in their study published on 30 January, 2020 – “The finding of 4 unique inserts in the 2019-nCoV, all of which have identity /similarity to amino acid residues in key structural proteins of HIV-1 is unlikely to be fortuitous in nature”[4]. This study was voluntarily withdrawn by the authors for their intention to not feed into the conspiracy theories[5].

A multitude of un-natural factors indicate that the current out-break epi-centered around Wuhan (Hubei Province) in central China was an outcome of the worldwide human efforts at research and development of weapons related to the biological domain. In 2015, China inaugurated its first ever Bio-safety Level-4(BSL-4) laboratory [the Wuhan National Bio-safety Laboratory (Level 4) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences[6]] in Hubei province within the framework of the Sino-French Cooperation Agreement on Emerging Infectious Diseases Prevention and Control signed in October 2004[7].

While the need for the BSL-4 lab in China followed the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (SARS-Cov) [2002-2003], the National Development and Reform Commission of People’s Republic of China(March, 2015) states – “According to China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, the chance that exotic pathogens could be brought into the country has dramatically increased….our new BSL-4 facility will play an integral role in -preventing and controlling highly pathogenic microbes”[8]. Amidst reports that the source zero of the present outbreak is un-related to the live-stock wet market in Wuhan[9] and the close proximity of the BSL-4 lab within 20 miles of the wet market has led to theory of an accidental leakage of the genetically re-engineered virus from within the BSL-4 lab itself in Wuhan.

While China inaugurated its first BSL-4 lab in 2015 and intends to create additional 05-07 BSL-4 labs by 2025, it developed its BSL-4 laboratory user training program in 2017 [Dr. Han Xia, Associate Professor at Wuhan Institute of Virology, Chinese Academy of Sciences]. It further depends on foreign countries [France, the US, and Australia] to learn the art of operating such advanced facility through its exchange programs.

The first case linked to the Wuhan outbreak was reported on 01 December, 2019 with no links to the Huanan seafood market. However, the first public attention to this issue was reported by Dr. Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist in Wuhan who raised an alarm over Chinese social media [We Chat] and few others on 03 January, 2020. After initially being reprimanded by the Wuhan police for spreading false information, Dr.Li fell sick on 10 January and finally succumbed to the illness on 07 February[10].

In a study done by a group of Chinese researchers and published by The Lancet on 24 January stated – By Jan 2, 2020, 41 admitted hospital patients had been identified as having laboratory-confirmed 2019-nCoV infection….27 (66%) of 41 patients had been exposed to Huanan seafood market[11].Furthermore in his estimates of the clock and TMRCA for 2019-nCoV based on 27 genomes, Kristian Andersen, an evolutionary biologist at the Scripps Research Institute traces the earliest ancestor of the Wuhan virus to 01 October, 2019[12].The first death caused since the outbreak occurred on 09 January and involved a 61 year old man with no connection to the Huanan seafood market[13]. And as late as 18 January, it remained unknown to Wuhan municipal authorities of the human-to-human transmission[14].

Unlike China’s experience with SARS-Cov in February 2003, this time around quick-reaction on part of Chinese health agencies and government policy with respect communication and sharing of information both within and outside China has been laudable[15]. During the SARS-Cov (2002-03), while the first case was reported in the Guangdong province in southern China on 16 November, 2002 it took four months for the World Health Organization (WHO) to issue a global alert on 12 March, 2003 followed by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issuing first health alert and media tele-briefing about an atypical pneumonia that was named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) on 15 March, 2003. It was not until 24 March, 2003 that the CDC laboratory analysis suggested a new coronavirus may be the cause of SARS and CDC published a sequence of the virus believed to be responsible for the global epidemic of SARS on 14 April, 2003.

The WHO announced that the global SARS outbreak as ‘contained’ only on 05 July, 2003. A total of 8,096 persons worldwide with probable SARS resulted in 774 deaths – a fatality rate of 9.56 percent[16]. Efficiency of world health agencies since this epidemic (SARS) have improved dramatically, including that of China’s. However, the challenged posed by the 2019-nCoVseems significant despite such an improvement and will be comparatively more dramatic than SARS.

There are multiple factors that raise doubts over the narrative that the 2019-nCoV first originated in wild life and somehow made it into humans. Foremost of these factors is the dispute regarding the origin of the 2019-nCoV. The second factor is the existence of China’s BSL-4 laboratory where in China has been studying the most lethal pathogens yet known to mankind in Wuhan. China in its own admission is pursuing a ‘bio-defense’ program with an objective of shielding herself against future endemics such as SARS. The following presentation attempts to put together a variety of factors as available in the open sources to conclude the possibility or lack of any human action that may have caused the recent outbreak in Wuhan. Previously, credible evidence suggests human action in case of Ebola and AIDS in Africa[17].

Factor I: Early Warnings

At the Munich Security Conference (24 February, 2017), Mr. Bill Gates stated – “we also face a new threat that the next epidemic has a good chance of origination on a computer screen of a terrorist intent on using genetic engineering to create a synthetic version of a smallpox virus or a contagious and highly deadly strain of flu….and there is a reasonable probability of that taking place in the years ahead”[18].

Incidentally, a joint-study conducted (2017) by the scientists of – (1) The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (India)(2) The National Centre for Biological Sciences (India),(3) The Wuhan Institute of Virology (China) (4) The Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences(U.S.) and (5) The Duke-National University (Singapore) in the Indian state of Nagaland close to China without the explicit permission of the government of India and claimed to be funded by the United States Department of Defense’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) was published in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases journal (2019) originally established by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation[19].

The study presented evidence for prior exposure of bat harvesters and two resident fruit bat species to filovirus surface glycol-proteins by screening sera in a multiplexed serological assay. Antibodies reactive to two antigenically distinct filoviruses were detected in human sera and to three individual filoviruses in bats in remote Northeast India. Sera obtained from Eonycteris spelaea bats showed similar patterns of cross-reactivity as human samples, suggesting them as the species responsible for the spillover. In contrast, sera from Rousettus leschenaultii bats reacted to two different virus glycoproteins. Our results indicate circulation of several filoviruses in bats and the possibility for filovirus transmission from bats to humans[20].[Emphasis Added]

According to India’s national newsprint The Hindu, following the outbreak in Wuhan the government of India had ordered an inquiry into a study conducted in Nagaland by researchers from the U.S., China and India and a report to this effect has been submitted to the Indian Ministry of Health. Furthermore, in a written reply to questions from The Hindu, the U.S. Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta said it “did not commission this study and had not received any enquiries [from the Indian government] on it[21].”

Yet another signal of early warning was noticed at Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) in Winnipeg.  In June, 2012 Egyptian virologist Dr. Ali Mohamed Zaki isolated and identified a previously unknown coronavirus from the lungs of 60-year-old Saudi man in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Having failed to nail the causative agent, Dr. Zaki referred the case to Ron Fouchier, a leading virologist at the Erasmus Medical Center (EMC) in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. This Coronavirus sample was then acquired by Scientific Director Dr. Frank Plummer directly from Ron Fouchier and arrived at the National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) in Winnipeg (Canada) on 04 May, 2013. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), three months after the hospitalization of the patient in Jeddah, a second patient with a history of travel to Saudi Arabia who had been transferred from a hospital in Qatar to a hospital in London was infected with the same virus[22]. In October, 2012 Dr. Zaki and Dr. Fouchier along with other researchers published a brief report to this effect in The New England Journal of Medicine and stated that[23]

The virus (called HCoV-EMC) replicated readily in cell culture, producing cytopathic effects of rounding, detachment, and syncytium formation. The virus represents a novel beta coronavirus species. The closest known relatives are bat coronaviruses HKU4 and HKU5. Here, the clinical data, virus isolation, and molecular identification are presented. The clinical picture was remarkably similar to that of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003 and reminds us that animal coronaviruses can cause severe disease in humans. [Emphasis Added].

While these facts seem to be removed with respect to the recent outbreak, the death of Dr. Frank Plummer under mysterious circumstances in Kenya on 04 February amidst the outbreak has raised eyebrows. Dr. Frank was at the forefront of research on SARS, H1N1 flu and Ebola epidemics and considered a key in the investigation of the Wuhan outbreak[24]. Yet another disturbing related fact is the case of policy breach or bio-espionage by Chinese researchers linked to the BSL-4 lab in Wuhan – Dr. Xiangguo Qiu[25].

Since 2006, Dr. Qiu has been studying powerful viruses, Ebola virus foremost in the NML (Canada) and was escorted out of Canada’s only BSL-4 lab NML at Winnipeg along with her biologist husband (Dr. Keding Cheng) and other team members from China on 05 July, 2019. Dr. Qiu was head of the Vaccine Development and Antiviral Therapies Section in the Special Pathogens Program at NML and was closely involved with the development of Ebola (2014-2016) vaccine along with Dr. Gary Kobinger. Since this incident occurred during diplomatic tussle between China and Canada, it remains unknown if the intent of bio-espionage it true or not.

The situation now unraveling in Wuhan has not come out of the blue and was being studied via simulation amidst the Ebola crisis in West Africa. In May, 2015 a day-long pandemic tabletop exercise hosted by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Washington, DC simulated a series of National Security Council–convened meetings of 10 US government leaders – Claude X[26]. A key recommendation for US policy makers following this exercise was the United States commit to 06 strategic policy goals. The foremost of these being -“Develop capability to produce new vaccines and drugs for novel pathogens within months not years”.

With reasonable doubts it can be stated that the Wuhan National Bio-safety Laboratory (Level 4) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences was conducting research& development on a novel strain of Coronavirus along with other know lethal pathogens perhaps with the intention of developing a panacea. Furthermore, this Coronavirus was directly linked to the case that emerged in Saudi Arabia in 2012[27].  The following three conclusions emerge based on conjecture of factors stated above;

•  There are three possible sources of the Wuhan outbreak; (A) The Huanan seafood market in Wuhan (B) The BSL-4 lab in Wuhan (C) Source other than (A) and (B).

•  Both (A) and (B) remain disputed for lack of evidence and investigation.

•  The chance of (C) remains at 50% in relation to (A) and (B).

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr Sundaram Rajasimman

is with Jilin University, People’s Republic of China.

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