The question remains: Was it meant to be a bioweapon?

Last Updated : 22 May 2021, 21:00 IST

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As India and the world grapple with the second wave and possibly a third wave of the virus that emanated from Wuhan in China in late 2019, destroying families and economies and taking over three million lives so far, a new clamour has surfaced recently on whether the SARS-CoV-2 was indeed a bioweapon in the making that intentionally or otherwise escaped from a low-security biosafety level (BSL) 2 laboratory of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).

In January, the alleged architect of the suspected bioweapons programme, Dr Shi Zhengli – called the “bat woman” -- was honoured by Beijing as an “advanced worker of the Chinese Academy of Sciences” for her “innovation [and] serving the country.”

Shi has received more honours abroad, signifying her collaborative work. In June 2016, France contributed to the maintenance and training of the personnel at the high-security BSL-4 lab of the WIV and honoured Shi with the ‘Medal of Knight of the Order of Academic Palms.’ Shi obtained her doctorate in virology at the University of Montpellier II in France. France and China still cooperate on public health issues although France has had nearly six million infections and over 107,000 deaths so far from Covid.

Months before the virus spread across Wuhan and later to the US and other countries, Shi was elected to the American Academy of Microbiology in January 2019. Shi had extensive interactions and conducted research projects with virologists in the US such as Peter Deszak, Kristian G. Andersen, Ralph S. Barik and others. The US National Institutes of Health-affiliated institutions funded research at WIV. E-mails declassified last week point to regular contacts between Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and WIV and have raised several eyebrows. It was reported that people made over 450,000 trips between Wuhan and the US just before the Chinese city came under lockdown on January 23, 2020. The US has so far reported 32 million infections and more than half a million deaths due to Covid.

Chinese biowarfare researchers Qiu Xiangguo and her husband Cheng Keding and their students from China working at the Canadian National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg were reportedly involved in the smuggling of coronavirus in March 2019 to the Wuhan lab, from where it is believed to have leaked in late 2019. Qiu is reported to have visited WIV five times in 2017-18. In July 2019, Qiu and Cheng were relieved of duties at the Winnipeg lab. Canada has reported 1.3 million infections and over 25,000 deaths.

Australian journalist Anthony Klan has reported that WIV had evolved cooperation with Pakistan on a bioweapons programme. Klan says that several research programmes in this regard are part of China-Pakistan Economic Cooperation since 2015. In October 2018, a Pakistani delegation from Karachi visited WIV scientists, while the latter paid a reciprocal visit in January 2019. While Pakistan received vaccines from China, it has reported nearly a million infections, and about 20,000 deaths due to Covid.

As the disengagement process between Indian and Chinese troops in Ladakh appears to have stalled, India will have to factor in not just a two-front war, but one with a possibility of use of biological weapons against it.

While many countries, including China, have pledged to abide by the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention of 1984 to not develop, produce or stockpile such weapons, the experiments at WIV and 50 other institutions in China, and the lack of transparency regarding these programmes, cannot be ignored.

China is suspected to have developed some 40 anti-human pathogens. It has also received training and technologies from advanced countries in the field of bioweapons by citing the threat of proliferation of such weapons to “countries of concern.”

China’s inability to fully assist the World Health Organisation’s two delegations, despite its undertaking to the World Health Assembly in May 2020 in this regard, to probe the origins of the virus suggests that the international community will need to make serious efforts to fix accountability for the pandemic.

The Communist Party constitution in China says that “scientific development” is the only approach to resolve problems. Yet, when it comes to finding the origins of the virus in Wuhan, it was less than forthcoming in sharing scientific data related to blood and drainage samples with the visiting WHO delegations.

Published 22 May 2021, 18:41 IST

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