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LAB LEAK, Part 2: COVID, Biological Weapons, China, and the United States

By Francisco Gil-White

(A Spanish version of this article was first published by Voces)

Does coronavirus SARS2 (SARS-COV-2), the cause of COVID-19, have a natural origin? Or did it leak from a lab—perhaps the ‘Wuhan lab’ (Wuhan Institute of Virology)? This is an emotional controversy. My previous article supported the view that a possible lab leak must be taken seriously.

I’ll bring you up to date on that controversy.

Then I’ll ask: Is the Wuhan lab a bioweapons lab?

And: Does the Wuhan lab work for the US military?

The controversy

Some important scientists, upset that a possible lab leak should even be discussed, published two manifestos deriding it as anti-Chinese racism and ‘conspiracy theory’ (read: paranoid lunacy): Calisher et al (2020) in The Lancet and Andersen et al (2020) in Nature Medicine. US government officials and the media invoked these manifestos to make public sport—all in unison—of the lab-leak hypothesis.

(A bit strange, if you think about it, because they were protecting the prestige, it seemed, of the Chinese government.)

And there matters stood until May 2021, when, against the grain, Nicholas Wade published his analysis in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and concluded that almost all the evidence favors the lab-leak hypothesis. This was a watershed moment: people stopped making fun. And some have changed their minds. For example (as reported in the New York Times), Ian Lipkin, cosigner of the Nature Medicine manifesto.

Many cosigners of the Lancet manifesto (Calisher et al), however, remained steadfast and returned to the fray in July 2021 with a re-manifesto:

“Recently, many of us have individually received inquiries asking whether we still support what we said in early 2020. The answer is clear: we reaffirm … that SARS-CoV-2 most likely originated in nature and not in a laboratory …”

But missing from this re-statement were the signatures of William B. Karesh, Bernard Roizman, and Peter Palese. According to the New York Times, the latter has elsewhere “said that ‘a lot of disturbing information has surfaced since The Lancet letter I signed’ and that he wants an investigation to come up with answers.”

Other scientists who now dispute the official—natural origin—version have gone further. In September 2021, again in The Lancet, a group of scientists responded to the Calisher et al re-manifesto stating that “there is no direct support for the natural origin of SARS-CoV-2, and a laboratory-related accident is plausible.”

Why do they consider it plausible?

For a more complete list of reasons, see the Nicholas Wade article. But, for starters, 1) because the Wuhan Institute of Virology is only a few miles from where the first COVID cases were documented; 2) because, according to scientists, SARS2, which causes COVID, is descended from a bat coronavirus; and 3) because, at the Wuhan lab they do ‘gain of function’ research on bat coronaviruses, to make them more lethal and contagious to human beings.

Question: Why is anyone doing ‘gain of function’ research?

In the official justification, this is a public health effort: they hope to get ahead of the probable evolution of dangerous pathogens so that we can better prepare for a pandemic.

But there is one problem with that interpretation: according to the US Department of State, the Wuhan lab works for the Chinese military, which has a clandestine biowarfare program. And that suggests an alternative interpretation: the ‘gain of function’ research at Wuhan is for biological weapons.

From this latter perspective, the most interesting detail is that, as explained in my previous article, the famous ‘batwoman’ Zhengli-li Shi (or Shi Zhengli)—responsible for enhancing bat coronaviruses with bioengineered ‘gain of function’ at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and prime suspect as ground zero (or should I say ‘Typhoid Mary’?) of this pandemic—has been receiving financial support and scientific collaboration from the US government.

If you did a double take, then you were paying attention.

Question: Is the US government collaborating with China—its supposed enemy—in the development of biological weapons? Or could it be that health authorities in the US—those officially approving these ‘gain of function’ collaborations—don’t ever talk to the US State Department and so have no idea what the Chinese are doing?

If we can say with confidence that the US power elite care not for biological weapons (officially banned), then we must prefer the second hypothesis. But what if the US power elite are interested in possessing biological weapons?

Well, how can we find out? The first step is to examine the bioweapons ban.

The US ban on bioweapons research: Was it real?

Bioweapons research in the United States was initiated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. According to the official story, it was then suspended unilaterally by President Richard Nixon in 1969. After which Nixon led the signing of an international treaty to control, worldwide, the proliferation of these weapons of mass destruction: the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).

That sounds good, but Barry Kellman from the International Security and Biopolicy Institute explains in Global Policy that there is a small problem with the BWC.

Unlike the international treaties to restrict the proliferation of nuclear and chemical weapons, which provide sophisticated mechanisms to verify and control, “the prohibition against bioweapons proliferation carried no comparable system whatsoever.” The various signatory States can tell us they are sticking to the BWC, but there is no way to confirm that. One must take government officials at their word.

Taking Nixon at his word, the most generous interpretation sees the BWC as true progress for international peace and security, because the US really did suspend—even if it cannot be confirmed—its bioweapons development program.

In the most cynical interpretation, Nixon and his successors were just trying to slow down other countries, gaining an advantage for their own secret bioweapons research program, which was never interrupted.

Which hypothesis is more reasonable?

Partisans of the cynical hypothesis will point out that US leaders can hardly be expected to implement—unilaterally—a military disadvantage; any kind of disarmament will require mutual verification. Since no such mutual verification exists, the most obvious guess here is that, against the BWC, the US government has continued in secret to develop biological weapons.

And, the cynics will add:

1) the BWC explicitly allows ‘defensive’ research;

2) an old military truism asserts that nothing really divides defensive from offensive;

3) much ‘civilian’ biological research has ‘dual use’ for biowarfare purposes.

Thinking along these lines, according to the journal Science, a group of scientists complained in 2018 about a US program “to use insects such as aphids or whiteflies to infect crops with tailormade viruses that can deliver certain genes to mature plants.” Officially, this is called “gene therapy for plants.” But the same technology, the critics pointed out, can be used to devastate crops, so it violates the BWC.

It’s curious, in any case, that an ostensibly agricultural project should be funded by DARPA: the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—that is to say, by the Pentagon.

Most worrisome to some—especially in the context of recent speculations concerning the present pandemic—is the possibility that the US military might want to use bioweapons against civilian populations.

But is that even thinkable?

To answer that question, the most relevant context might be what US Army spokespeople confessed to, in 1975-77, when called to testify before the US Senate, and the amazing series of revelations about secret military activities that the Senate investigations produced.

What was revealed in 1975-77?

In its Senate testimony, the military reluctantly confessed that, in the years 1950-60, they had conducted massive secret experiments to test their bioweapons on the civilian population of the United States.

There was a brief scandal and then: smokescreen (nothing to see): the media forgot all about it—and quick. So much that, today, the general public knows nothing about this. They all remember Watergate—a burglary—like it was some massive criminal enterprise. But they don’t remember this.

And why don’t they? Because the media hardly ever mention it.

Anyone interested will find only a sprinkling of articles in minor publications and specialized science magazines that poke the surface briefly and timidly, like an otter’s nose, in irregular bouts over the years. Scarce and brief they certainly are, but these few reports are quite sufficient to document a major catastrophe for US democracy.

To get the picture, consider one dramatic example.

In 1950, according to Smithsonian Magazine, the government of the United States organized a massive bacterial infection of its own citizens in the San Francisco Bay area. This may have permanently altered the ecology of the region. The microbe released, Serratia marcescens, can cause, among other things, heart-valve infections.

Surprising? Outrageous? Shocking? Chilling? Terrifying? Sit down. Catch your breath. Have a drink. This was nothing.

The San Francisco test—a colossal attack, if we choose not to mince words—was just “one of hundreds”—hundreds!—“carried out in the 1950s and 1960s” by the Pentagon, writes Smithsonian.

All of these attacks were against the civilian population of the United States. Those affected are counted in the millions.

But this business of doing medical experiments without informed consent on defenseless civilians is a Nazi thing. No? That’s what we learned in school. This is what governments controlled by criminal mafias do.

Yes, precisely.

Some Nazis, at least, were tried at Nuremberg (and Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem). But those responsible for these amazing crimes against US civilians were never tried. And we still don’t know everything that happened.

Business Insider reports:

“In a 1995 Newsday story, reporter Dennis Duggan contacted retired Army scientist Charles Senseney, who had testified about the experiments to a Senate subcommittee in 1975. In his testimony, he explained that one light bulb full of bacteria dropped at 14th Street easily spread the bacteria up to at least 58th Street.

But he declined to reveal anything to the Newsday reporter. ‘I don’t want to get near this,’ Senseney said to Duggan. ‘I [testified], because I was told I had to by the people at the Department of Defense … I better get off the phone.’ ”

What did Senseney say in his 1975 testimony? All of the following:

  • After receiving an official order to destroy the biological agents (when Nixon declared the biowarfare program extinct), the military pretended they had given a toxin property of the CIA to a different military organ, to be destroyed. But they had returned the toxin to the CIA.
  • He had no evidence that his superiors had really destroyed the other biological agents in possession of the army (those not returned to the CIA).
  • As for the hardware that he was told to destroy (which he did, according to his testimony), Senseney received neither written orders nor any guidance on how to go about it.
  • This hardware included technologies to infect people at a distance, such as dart pistols and also dart throwers disguised as fountain pens, umbrellas, and walking sticks. They could also compress and harden a biological agent into a shirt button, so that a ‘tourist’ could walk into another country wearing it.
  • They had technologies to deposit aerosolized pathogens on highways and railways, and to infect water systems.
  • All of these technologies had been shared with the CIA, but the CIA shared no information with the army about how they employed these technologies.

(One obvious implication of this testimony—which is never stated, I believe, in the congressional record—is that, even if the army did destroy these technologies, they could always get them back later from the CIA.)

Now, how was all this uncovered? Why was Senseney called to testify before the Senate in 1975?

Some years earlier, in 1967, an investigation by a relatively small magazine, Ramparts, had documented the CIA’s clandestine control over the National Students Association, by far the biggest and most influential student organization in the country. It was a huge scandal. Ramparts kept investigating and the Big Media—to show they could investigate too—did their own thing. The result was a series of giant scandals (that nobody remembers now, because the media never provide this context nowadays).

This series of investigations, tripping pell-mell over each other for a good ten years, revealed that US Intelligence had corrupted the entire system: their tentacles extended over an enormous network of civic associations, foundations, political organizations, and the press.

The scandal of those years that everyone still remembers was the smallest and most insignificant of all: the Watergate burglary. In the middle of the noisily absurd media-produced pandemonium that attended the discovery of this burglary, Richard Nixon melodramatically declared “I am not a crook!” in 1974, then resigned in 1975 rather than face impeachment.

The same year, Senator Frank Church, with his eye on the more important scandals, launched an investigation on the secret activities of the CIA, other intelligence organs, and the Pentagon.  The stuff about the Pentagon releasing Serratia marcescens in San Francisco and the other 239 massive biowarfare tests over US cities all started coming out. Additional revelations followed two years later, in 1977, in hearings before the Senate Subcommittee on Health and Scientific Research of the Committee on Human Resources.

In fairness to the US Army, I will point out that, in the same year of 1977, Dr. John James Farmer published, with colleagues, a brief note in The Lancet where, according to the evidence his team had examined, it was other variants of Serratia marcescens—and not the one liberated by the army—that had been making people sick in San Francisco. Farmer’s note is sometimes cited as an exoneration of the military (for example, here).

And, once again in fairness, there is no scientific relevance to the fact that Dr. Farmer worked for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) of the US government, or to the fact that he was expert witness for the defense when the Nevin family—alleging that the army’s serratia had killed Edgar J. Nevin—sued the US government. To say otherwise would be an ad hominem, and such ‘arguments’ cannot, of themselves, invalidate Farmer’s analysis.

What can worry a responsible skeptic, however, is that scientists not in Farmer’s team have apparently not examined his evidence. It appears, also, that no one has ever given his note in The Lancet a skeptical once over. And someone really should, because, no matter what Farmer says that he found, the remarkable coincidence remains: “serratia infections were recorded at Stanford hospital for the first time ever only a few days after the army test” (Cole, p.96; my emphasis).

The last quotation is from Leonard Cole, director of the Program on Terror Medicine and Security at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, who became interested in the army biowarfare experiments and published, in 1988, a detailed history of them in his book Clouds of Secrecy: The Army’s Germ Warfare Tests over Populated Areas.

What Cole documented is chilling.

Clouds of Secrecy

This story begins in World War II with the Japanese general Dr. Shiro Ishii, whose unfortunate guinea pigs were defenseless prisoners of war. According to documentation released via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA),

“at least 3000 subjects were killed as a result of the [medical] experiments. Some died of disease, while others were executed after becoming physical wrecks and unfit for further experimentation.” (Cole, p.13)

Instead of trying Ishii for war crimes and crimes against humanity, US authorities protected him and his team in exchange for obtaining all of their information (Cole, p.13). Apparently nobody knows exactly where Ishii spent the rest of his life after 1947, but some speculate—and why not?—that Ishii worked in secret at Fort Detrick, Maryland, where Franklin Delano Roosevelt had created the United States Army Biological Warfare Laboratories.

It does not appear that the US military’s scruples were more delicate than Ishii’s. The Japanese general murdered some 3000 people from enemy countries; the US military sprayed millions of their own citizens with bacteria.

According to Leonard Cole, the 1977 Senate testimony

“revealed the awesome scope of the earlier germ-warfare testing program. Army spokesmen acknowledged that 239 populated areas from coast to coast had been blanketed with bacteria between 1949 and 1969. Tests involved covering areas of Alaska and Hawaii and the cities of San Francisco, Washington DC, Key West, and Panama City in Florida. Some tests were more focused, such as those in which bacteria were sprayed onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike or into the New York City subway system.”

The Army asserted it had not monitored the health statistics in the areas affected by its experiments. But can we even call these experiments if nobody measures? Isn’t it more likely that the Army made this claim so it wouldn’t have to account for the precise magnitude of its crimes? It is amazing to witness in the record, in any case, that US legislators accepted this story from the Army without blinking. But accept it they did, and so “we shall never know how much disease and death [the military] may have caused” (Cole, p.6).

An optimist will wish here to think that, well, at least the whole mess was exposed back in 1977, and so thankfully this is no longer going on. But according to Cole there is zero ground for any such optimism. “Germ warfare testing is not merely a matter of history,” he assures us, and “the possibility of spraying the public again has been left open” (Cole, pp.3-4).

In fact, “An army spokesman testified in 1977 at congressional hearings that the army might resume testing when it finds an ‘area of vulnerability that takes additional tests.’ ” And by the early 1980s, in the administration of President Ronald Reagan, the military was already recommending internally that people be sprayed again (Cole, pp.3-4).

But there was one inconvenience: the President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research, headed by Alexander M. Capron, “who … [was saying] that, under existing rules, the army could be spraying over heavily populated areas, and the public would not know.” It just wouldn’t do for this Capron to go on like that. So his Bioethics Commission, “the only federal commission concerned with ethical problems involving research on humans, was dissolved in 1983”—the year after Capron let that comment slip (Cole, p.4).

And then, the following year,

“In 1984 the army sought to expand its biological warfare testing facilities in Utah in a manner that seemed intended to draw minimal outside attention. In an apparent effort to avoid congressional hearings, it tried to ‘reprogram’ funds that had been designated for other purposes.” (Cole, p.4)

What was the point of that? Probably this:

“A 1986 army report reveals that open air testing is taking place again, at least on a limited basis. Since testing is conducted secretly, we do not know how many people may be exposed, or what plans exist for future testing.” (Cole, pp.3-4)

Those plans for future testing, it may be safely assumed, were quite ambitious, because the same year,

“in 1986, the Reagan administration’s budget for chemical and biological warfare exceeded $1 billion [$1000 million], up from $160 million in 1980, although its details were largely secret.” (Cole, pp.3-4)


Why has the military been testing bioweapons on the US civilian population?

In 1981, Edward J. Nevin III and his family sued the US government, alleging that Serratia marcescens, the bacteria massively released over San Francisco in 1950, had killed his grandfather. The government presented its own experts to dispute the claim, and, among them, the aforementioned Dr. John James Farmer of the CDC. According to Cole, the judge’s well-documented bias in favor of the military proved an insuperable obstacle for Nevin, though Nevin had ably exposed various significant problems with Farmer’s presentation (Cole, pp.85-104).

But the trial was still a win for US citizens, as it “brought to light previously classified documents that had lain buried in the tombs of army archives.” And those responsible, called to testify at trial, found themselves compelled to justify in open court, on the record, what they had done:

“Former military and scientific officials who had administered the testing program testified that they would be spraying today if still in charge. To gather data for national security, their testimony shows, was their overriding priority” (Cole, pp.6-7)

They doubled down.

These “former military and scientific officials”—paid by US citizens, and deputized, one presumes, to do the citizens’ work, deputized indeed, and no less, by the elected leader of all those US citizens—didn’t say, “Yes, we murdered US citizens, and we’d do it again.” Not literally.

Concerning what they did say literally—namely, that they meant to “gather data for national security”—I have two points.

First, the “for national security” claim, on the level of discourse, is a forced grammatical move for people high in government who face the cameras and who must always claim to be ‘defending the people,’ for to claim otherwise is to invite a revolution. So they said they meant to “gather data for national security.”

But in context this yields an Orwellian inversion, as their data-gathering method was to attack US citizens—the nation—before any formally recognized enemy had a chance to do so, thereby abolishing the very principle of national security.

War is peace, freedom is slavery, and we attack the citizens to protect the citizens.

A totalitarian State, George Orwell explained, will ceaselessly repeat absurd slogans with the self-assured boldness of self-evident truths.

But we, the free, shun absurdity, so let us dissipate it: the US military have used American civilians as guinea pigs to develop offensive bioweapons because they consider these civilians expendable, and so have rendered their national security null.

Just as they have also rendered null the security of their own soldiers. It has been documented that,

“During the 1960s, as other documents revealed, the army released various gases and hallucinogenic drugs in open air tests in Maryland and Utah. Thousands of soldiers were exposed. Shortly after reports about the tests were uncovered in 1979, the army announced that it would try to contact the victims to see if there were long-term effects. Nothing has been heard from the army about the matter since then.” (Cole, p.37)


What are the implications?

We exist in a pandemic caused perhaps by a bat coronavirus weaponized via ‘gain of function’ research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology under supervision of the Chinese military.

As detailed in my previous article, Zhengli-li Shi—the ‘batwoman’ at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the one who conducts ‘gain of function’ research on bat coronaviruses and is suspected of releasing SARS2—has been getting financing and scientific collaboration from the US government.

This looks bad.

But for US citizens to understand just how bad this looks they needed for the New York Times and the Washington Post, on their front pages, or CNN and Fox News, on prime time, to do a content-full retrospective on the US biowarfare program, as I have partially done here.

Following which, US citizens needed the question put on the table: Might the Wuhan lab—the probable source of the present COVID pandemic—have been recruited to develop bioweapons for the US?

But not a peep. By anyone.

In my next article I will address the tabooed question.

Francisco Gil-White has a Masters in Social Sciences from the University of Chicago and a PhD in biological and cultural anthropology from UCLA. His PhD thesis work was in rural Western Mongolia, where he did 14 months of fieldwork studying the mutual ethnic perceptions of neighboring Torguud Mongol and Kazakh nomadic herders. Until June 2006, he was Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Today he teaches at ITAM, in Mexico City. His research is broadly concerned with the evolution of the proximate mechanisms responsible for social learning and social perception and cognition. His main interests are the evolution of ethnic processes, with a special focus on racism, and particularly anti-Semitism; prestige processes; the evolution of language; the structure of narrative memory; the structure and interaction of media and political processes; the laws of history; Western geopolitics; and the political history of the West.  You can visit his website at:  HIRHome.com