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Averting Our Gaze from Biowarfare: Pandemics and Self-fulfilling Prophecies

Those bastards in their white lab coats
Who experiment with mountain goats
Should leave the universe alone
It's not their business, not their home

-- John Prine, "Lonesome Friends of Science"

People who are dismissing the possibility that the pandemic might have come from a lab -- either accidentally from a Wuhan lab or them being effectively framed, as we saw with the 2001 anthrax attacks -- are basically risking the future of humanity because they don't want to have an uncomfortable discussion.

On Feb. 11, I asked Anne Schuchat, the CDC's Principal Deputy Director, at the National Press Club if it were a "complete coincidence" that the outbreak of the novel coronavirus happened in Wuhan, a center of China's declared biowarfare/biodefence capacity. I didn't get a satisfactory answer. In fact, at the end it was remarkably evasive. She wouldn't answer my followup question about whether the claimed "zoonotic origin" precluded the outbreak from being caused pathogens from nature that then could be accidentally leaked from the labs.  

But such simple facts are not being given to the public. Take "Democracy Now," the ostensible flagship broadcast of progressive thought. A search on "Democracy Now" shows that the first time the program mentioned "Wuhan" and "lab" or "laboratory" was on April 6 -- to credit "the Wuhan lab that identified the coronavirus that causes COVID-19." Mainstream outlets at least reported the existence of the lab to their audiences in a somewhat timely manner, even if they distorted the information. 

And skew the info they did. 

Forbes (3/17/20) published the piece "No, COVID-19 Coronavirus Was Not Bioengineered. Here’s The Research That Debunks That Idea," which depends on a misreading of a strange and misleading Nature Medicine article to dismiss the notion that it came out of a lab. The Forbes senior contributor on health, Bruce Y. Lee writes: "it’s a lot easier to leak a pocket of air though your butt than a virus from a BSL-4 facility." Apparently this was supposed to be reassuring. 

Similarly CNN (4/6/20) mocked the notion of a lab leak when re-assessing the source of the pandemic, describing one possibility being that: "It leaked -- like a genie out of a bottle -- from a lab in an accident."

But even a cursory look at the record shows that these labs, where ever they exist, have a lot of accidents -- just from 2019, the New York Times (8/5/19) reported: "Deadly Germ Research Is Shut Down at Army Lab Over Safety Concerns" regarding Fort Detrick in Maryland: "Problems with disposal of dangerous materials led the government to suspend research at the military’s leading biodefense center." (The local paper, the Frederick News-Post has provided some coverage, including publishing letters by local activist Barry Kissin who has focused on the issue.)

USA Today had a reporter on this beat, Alison Young, but she left the paper. A sampling of her work: 

"Hundreds of bioterror lab mishaps cloaked in secrecy" (8/17/14

"Worker at Tulane possibly exposed to bioterror bacteria" (3/11/15) 

"CDC failed to disclose lab incidents with bioterror pathogens to Congress" (6/23/16)

"GAO finds more gaps in oversight of bioterror germs studied in U.S.": "Government regulators have no idea how often laboratories working with some of the world’s most dangerous viruses and bacteria are failing to fully kill vials of specimens before sending them to other researchers who lack critical gear to protect them against infection, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office." (9/21/16) 

"Congress demands details of secret CDC lab incidents revealed by USA TODAY" (1/17/17)

Even since the start of the novel coronavirus outbreak, Nature reported: "Chinese institutes investigate pathogen outbreaks in lab workers." (12/17/19)

Then, on April 16, "Democracy Now" had Peter Daszak of the earthy crunchy sounding EcoHealth Alliance. It was just after John Roberts of Fox asked Trump about a possible lab origin, because it doesn't matter what the actual cause of the pandemic is, it matters what Trump says and we have to attack what Trump says because that's what progressives are supposed to do.

Daszak is an interested party. He has worked with and helped fund the work in Wuhan and he of course dismissed the prospect of lab release in the most patronizing manner possible. The piece was headlined: “'Pure Baloney': Zoologist Debunks Trump’s COVID-19 Origin Theory, Explains Animal-Human Transmission." Notice the audience of "Democracy Now" are now told this is "Trump's theory" -- not a concern of many people for months before Trump publicly uttered a word on the subject. 

Listeners to "Democracy Now" were not given elementary facts about the history of lab accidents. They were not told that among the policy advisors for EcoHealth Alliance are David Franz, a former commander at Fort Detrick, the main U.S. government biowarefare/biodefence facility, who spoke in 2018 at the rightwing Hudson Institute, and Thomas Geisbert, who is doing biodefence/biowarfare work at Galveston. Its partners include universities as well major corporations like Johnson & Johnson and Colgate Palmolive. And it has worked with USAID in funding lab dangerous work in between scientists in the U.S. and in Wuhan

Daszak of course defended the work without hesitation. They ostensibly are trying to defend against pandemics. This general process involves collecting and even creating dangerous pathogens for the stated purpose of defending against them. They at least got the first part down. 

Indeed, to Richard Ebrightat Rutgers University, an eminent scientist and one of the few who scrutinize the well funded biodefense/biowarfare work, this is all incredibly dangerous:. Ebright calls it "Not 'vaccine research.' Not research that provides information useful for preventing or combatting outbreaks. Just reckless pseudo-scientific Indiana-Jones adventurism with high risk of infection of collector, and from there, infection of public." He also charges that collecting thousands of such viruses is the "Definition of insanity."

Interestingly, even the researcher Daszak's group supports at the Wuhan Institute of Virology says that she was initially quite concerned that the lab was the source. Shi Zhengli was profiled by Scientific American, (March 11, 2020) "How China’s 'Bat Woman' Hunted Down Viruses from SARS to the New Coronavirus": "If coronaviruses were the culprit, she remembers thinking, 'could they have come from our lab?' ... Shi breathed a sigh of relief when the results came back: none of the sequences matched those of the viruses her team had sampled from bat caves. 'That really took a load off my mind,' she says. 'I had not slept a wink for days.'"

She seems more self reflective than Daszak, but why should the world take her word? As Ebright at Rutgers states: "A denial is not a refutation."

In fact, there is no doubt that Fox and Tom Cotton and others are clearly trying to demonize China and portray Chinese labs are uniquely dangerous. The liberal counter to this is that Chinese labs are great, like U.S. labs. Excluded from this "discussion" is the obvious truth: These labs are all dangerous. There is no meaningful distinction between biowarfare and biodefence. The U.S. has effectively spurred a bioweapons arms race, as documented by Francis Boyle in his Biowarfare and Terrorism (2005).

By not taking on the issue of biowarfare, the left is effectively turning it over to the prowar right which is weaponizing it against China instead of taking a comprehensive approach to ensure a bioweapons arms race doesn't continue to threaten humanity. 

On Fox, Cotton stated that U.S. labs do work that is "in large part done for preventative purposes," like "trying to discover vaccines." In contrast, "China is obviously very secretive about what happens at the Wuhan laboratory." (FNC 2/16/20) In fact, all countries -- largely led by the U.S. -- who do this work are secretive. Much of the rightwing coverage in the U.S. on this issue has been led by the reporting of Bill Gertz in the Washington Times whose books include The China Threat: How the People's Republic Targets America and, from 2019: Deceiving the Sky: Inside Communist China's Drive for Global Supremacy

Similarly, Josh Rogin's reporting in the Washington Post, "State Department cables warned of safety issues at Wuhan lab studying bat coronaviruses" seems very self serving for the U.S. government. 

If current dynamics continue, the rightwing will use the issue of biolabs to demonize China, and perhaps other states, without there being any serious scrutiny to bioweapons work by the U.S. and its allies (Israel has not even signed the Biological Weapons Convention). 

While some seek to demonize China, others, like David Ignatius of the Washington Post are calling for the U.S. and Chinese governments to work together. As are some Chinese officials. That can be a very dangerous proposition as well. Consider the dynamics of the other major weapon threatening humanity: nuclear weapons. The U.S. and Russia are effectively colluding to maintain their geopolitical power by maintaining their nuclear weapons stockpiles. They have blocked moves toward a nuclear weapons ban -- an effort backed at the UN by 122 countries. There was precious little discussion about this issue even though the group behind the effort, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, won the Nobel Peace Prize. I challenged this collusion by asking about it at the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki but was dragged out of the hall, shackled, thrown in the back of a police vehicle and detained for six hours. 

Following the 9/11 anthrax attacks, which likely actually originated in U.S. government labs -- the U.S. government perversely dramatically escalated its spending on "biodefence" -- building more labs all over the country, training hundreds if not thousands of more scientists on working with the planet’s most dangerous pathogens. This is on the order of five billion dollars each year since the anthrax attacks. 

On April 21, the Times published the piece "How Scientists Could Stop the Next Pandemic Before It Starts," about Daszak and friends, complete with fancy graphic, in which the Times states: "Researchers believe they could pre-emptively create vaccines and drugs to fight a wide range of viral threats -- if they can get sufficient funding."

That is, we still don't know the if the cause of the pandemic wasn't this dangerous lab work, but the people doing it -- who have gotten a ton of money already -- are getting pieces into the New York Times effectively beating down the door for more money. 

And Ft. Detrick is about to get what appears to be the biggest and expensive "biodefense" lab ever built in the entire world. 

In 2018, the Federal Select Agent Program "received eight reports of loss and 193 reports of a release of a biological select agent or toxin." 

Still sanguine about the labs? Try reading this 2014 paper -- "Laboratory Escapes and 'Self-fulfilling prophecy' Epidemics" -- by Martin Furmanski of the Scientist’s Working Group on Chemical and Biologic Weapons and the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation (versions of it were published at the time in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and Slate): 

He warned of "The danger to world or regional public health from the escape from microbiology laboratories of pathogens capable of causing pandemics, or Potentially Pandemic Pathogens (PPPs)."

Furmanski documents smallpox accidental release in Britain in the 1970s, which eventually led to the head of the lab committing suicide, Venezuelan equine encephalitis in 1995, foot-and-mouth disease in Britain in 2007 which began "4 kilometers from a biosafety level 4 laboratory."

More recently, he notes: "SARS has not naturally recurred, but there have been six separate 'escapes' from virology labs studying it: one each in Singapore and Taiwan, and in four distinct events at the same laboratory in Beijing. ...

"It should be emphasized that these examples are only the 'tip of the iceberg' because they represent laboratory accidents that have actually caused illness outside of the laboratory in the general public environment. ...

"Public awareness of the 1977 H1N1 pandemic and its likely laboratory origins has been virtually absent. Virologists and public health officials with the appropriate sophistication were quickly aware that a laboratory release was the most likely origin, but they were content not to publicize this, aware that such embarrassing allegations would likely end the then nascent cooperation of Russian and Chinese virologists, which was vital to worldwide influenza surveillance. ...

"It is hardly reassuring that despite stepwise technical improvements in containment facilities and increased policy demands for biosecurity procedures in the handling of dangerous pathogens, that escapes of these pathogens regularly occur and cause outbreaks in the general environment. Looking at the problem pragmatically, question is not if such escapes will happen in the future, but rather what the pathogen may be and how such an escape will be contained, if indeed it can be contained at all.

"Advances in genetic manipulation now allow the augmentation of virulence and transmissibility in dangerous pathogens, and such experiments have been funded and performed, notably in the H5N1 avian influenza virus. The advisability of performing such experiments at all, and particularly in laboratories placed at universities in heavily populated urban areas, where laboratory personnel who are potentially exposed are in daily contact with a multitude of susceptible and unaware citizens is clearly in question. If such manipulations should be allowed at all, it would seem prudent to conduct them in isolated laboratories where personnel are sequestered from the general public and must undergo a period of 'exit quarantine' before re-entering civilian life."

Sam Husseini is an independent journalist and founder of VotePact.org, which encourages principled progressives and conscientious conservatives to work together. 

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