In March 2019, a key official at the Wuhan Institute of Virology—China’s only bio-safety level 4 laboratory, in the state where SARS CoV-2 infections were reported for the first time—and others had flagged several safety concerns in China’s bio-research labs.
China acceded to the UN Bioweapons Convention (UNBWC) in 1984. Yet, a report in The Australian claims US state department has accessed a document that shows the Chinese military was discussing weaponising coronaviruses in 2015. A WHO-China investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic identified animal markets as the most probable origin of SARS CoV-2, but questions over China restricting access to data and destroying relevant patient samples have dogged the probe since.
Without the requisite evidence, whether China was working on bio-agents or whether the purported paper by top Chinese military personnel was merely an academic exercise or whether SARS CoV-2 was of lab-origin will remain matters of mere conjecture. In these polarised times, they will drive narratives will have the potential to deepen societal fissures; this is perhaps already evident in the incidents of racial attacks in the US and elsewhere involving people of East and Southeast Asian descent.
This underlines the need for both far greater transparency regarding biological research/industrial use and stricter enforcement of bio-safety/anti-bioweaponisation compliance. The Biden administration, in February, voiced “deep concerns” about the way in which the findings of the WHO’s SARS CoV-2-origin probe were communicated, saying it had “questions about the process use to reach them (the findings)”. It had called on China to make data from the earliest days of the outbreak available.
The point is that China’s substantial biological facilities have often sparked ‘dual-use’ concerns; that is, the possibility of biological matter with legitimate and acceptable-use cases being diverted for used as a bio-weapon—indeed, the latest US Adherence to and Compliance With Arms Control, Non-proliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments report flags this concern. It mentions that “available information” on studies conducted at Chinese military medical institutions includes that which discusses “identifying, testing and characterising diverse families of potent toxins with dual-use applications”.
Also noted are certain inadequacies of China’s reporting under the BWC Confidence-Building Measures that are designed to monitor bio-weaponisation by countries. That apart, there have been lingering questions over the safety of China’s labs. In March 2019, a key official at the Wuhan Institute of Virology—China’s only bio-safety level 4 laboratory, in the state where SARS CoV-2 infections were reported for the first time—and others had flagged several safety concerns in China’s bio-research labs.
“Compared with high-level biosafety laboratories … in foreign countries, 80% of the relevant specification/standard of biosafety laboratories in China belong to the specification and quality standards under the macro guidance, and only a small fraction are operational method standards, making it difficult to ensure the security of the biosafety laboratory due to lack of operational technical support,” they had noted in an analysis published in ScienceDirect.
Dogged stonewalling of transparency efforts can hardly help China which must course correct; indeed, this only compounds the threat of future pandemics. Also, national governments and multilateral fora need to push China and others, that may be in violation of BWC provisions, to become immediately compliant or face dire punitive measures—trade action is an effective way to do this.