There is more than a whiff of hypocrisy, let alone irony, in the ongoing allegations by President Donald Trump and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo that the origin of the Covid-19 Coronavirus could have been a laboratory in China. It is an allegation that plays into widespread conspiracy theories that the virus was manufactured by scientists.
Trump added further fuel to diplomatic fires when he also announced that the United States would sue China for having — apparently negligently — spread the virus. And last week, Australian premier, Scott Morrison, with Trump a fellow climate change denier, contributed to the conspiracy theories by questioning publicly where in China the pandemic had originated.
Such comments have raised the ire of the Chinese government, but they have also raised again the fact that governments around the world maintain super secure virology laboratories that house the most lethal viruses and bacteria known to humanity. During the Cold War era, such laboratories raced to develop biological weapons.
However, since 1976 when the Biological Weapons Convention came into force, scientists in these facilities were supposed only to be analysing, understanding and working on antidotes to potential diseases. But there is still no formal verification system in place to monitor whether biological weapons are being developed, produced or stockpiled, so some biological warfare experimentation may still be going on.
This has given rise to a range of conspiracy theories about the origins of HIV and Aids as well as Ebola, and now Covid-19. Largely ignored in much of the media hype is the fact that scientists have, after analysing the genome of this latest coronavirus, concluded that it was not engineered by humans.
The expert view is that there are “strong genetic clues” that the virus originated with bats, which carry a large number of coronaviruses. Pangolins also carry a similar virus to Covid-19.
More than two years ago, a high-level panel of scientists, convened in 2015 by the World Health Organisation (WHO) noted that viruses can be transmitted from animals to humans; that the multi-billion dollar trade in wildlife trafficking, both as pets and for consumption and the manufacturing of traditional medicines, should be seen as a real danger.
The same panel also pointed out that, with rapid transnational travel and the encroachment into the remaining wild areas on the planet, such transmissions were likely to increase. They also warned that, as a result, it was “almost inevitable” that once containable local epidemics could become global disasters. However, governments around the world took very little action and some, including the US, scaled back on preventive measures.
However, there is a virology laboratory in the hills beyond the Chinese city of Wuhan, the initial epicentre of the pandemic. Like such facilities elsewhere, it is listed as top security. This provided a convenient scapegoat for Trump and Pompeo: they have implied that it may have been responsible for the virus.
“It seems to make sense,” Trump said of the allegations about the Wuhan lab. “We’re going to find out.” Pompeo, in a television interview, noted: “We are still asking the Chinese Communist Party to allow experts to get into that virology lab so that we can determine precisely where this virus began,”
This was certainly ironic since these remarks were made less than nine months after the major top security virology laboratory in the US, Fort Detrick, in Maryland, was shut down because of fears about toxic leaks. This lab was the mainstay of the US biological warfare programme during the years of the Cold War and was also almost certainly the source of the lethal anthrax attacks in the US in 2001 that killed five people.
Letters containing anthrax bacteria were posted to several newspapers and Democratic Party politicians. A senior biological weapons researcher at Fort Detrick, Bruce Ivins, killed himself in 2008, shortly before being charged by the FBI for carrying out the attacks.
In the wake of the anthrax scare, warnings were raised by some scientists about the fact that lethal viruses, perhaps along with engineered mutations, were being held by government laboratories. The potential therefore existed, they said, for “bioterrorism” should someone with access to any such toxins decide to release them.
At the time US biophysicist Steven Block noted: “We’re tempted to say that nobody in their right mind would ever use these things.” He added: “But not everybody is in their right mind.”
The fact that such a possibility exists in a world where bacteria and viruses are an ever-present threat to human health has allowed conspiracy theorists to maintain that two plus two equals six. Tragically, such fear-mongering, supported by prominent figures, tends to gain greater traction, especially on social media, than do the sober analyses of microbiologists. DM