The deadly animal-borne coronavirus spreading globally may have originated in a laboratory in the city of Wuhan linked to China’s covert biological weapons program, said an Israeli biological warfare analyst.
Radio Free Asia last week rebroadcast a Wuhan television report from 2015 showing China’s most advanced virus research laboratory, known the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The laboratory is the only declared site in China capable of working with deadly viruses.
Dany Shoham, a former Israeli military intelligence officer who has studied Chinese biological warfare, said the institute is linked to Beijing’s covert bio-weapons program.
“Certain laboratories in the institute have probably been engaged, in terms of research and development, in Chinese [biological weapons], at least collaterally, yet not as a principal facility of the Chinese BW alignment,” Mr. Shoham told The Washington Times.
Work on biological weapons is conducted as part of dual civilian-military research and is “definitely covert,” he said in an email.
Mr. Shoham holds a doctorate in medical microbiology. From 1970 to 1991, he was a senior analyst with Israeli military intelligence for biological and chemical warfare in the Middle East and worldwide. He held the rank of lieutenant colonel.
A Chinese Embassy spokesman did not return an email seeking comment.
Chinese authorities said they do not know the origin of the coronavirus, which has killed at least 80 and infected thousands.
Gao Fu, director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told state-controlled media that initial signs indicated the virus originated from wild animals sold at a seafood market in Wuhan.
One ominous sign, said a U.S. official, is that false rumors circulating on the Chinese internet claim the virus is part of a U.S. conspiracy to spread germ weapons. That could indicate China is preparing propaganda outlets to counter any charges that the new coronavirus escaped from one of Wuhan’s civilian or defense research laboratories.
The World Health Organization is calling the microbe novel coronavirus 2019-nCoV. At a meeting Thursday in Geneva, the organization stopped short of declaring a public health emergency of international concern.
China has deployed military forces to Wuhan to halt all travel out of the city of 11 million people in an effort to contain the outbreak of the virus, which causes pneumonialike symptoms.
The Wuhan institute has studied coronaviruses including the strain that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), H5N1 influenza virus, Japanese encephalitis and dengue. Researchers at the institute also have studied the germ that causes anthrax, a biological agent once developed in Russia.
“Coronaviruses [particularly SARS] have been studied in the institute and are probably held therein,” Mr. Shoham said. “SARS is included within the Chinese BW program, at large, and is dealt with in several pertinent facilities.”
It is not known whether the institute’s coronaviruses are specifically included in China’s biological weapons program but it is possible, he said.
Asked whether the new coronavirus may have leaked, Mr. Shoham said: “In principle, outward virus infiltration might take place either as leakage or as an indoor unnoticed infection of a person that normally went out of the concerned facility. This could have been the case with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, but so far there isn’t evidence or indication for such incident.”
After researchers sequence the genome of the new coronavirus, they might be able to determine or suggest its origin or source.
Biological weapons convention
Mr. Shoham, now with the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University in Israel, said the virology institute is the only declared site in China known as P4 for pathogen level 4. That status indicates the institute uses the strictest safety standards to prevent the spread of the most dangerous and exotic microbes being studied.
The former Israeli military intelligence doctor also said suspicions were raised about the Wuhan Institute of Virology when a group of Chinese virologists working in Canada improperly sent to China samples of what he described as some of the deadliest viruses on earth, including the Ebola virus.
In a July article in the journal Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, Mr. Shoham said the Wuhan institute was one of four Chinese laboratories engaged in some aspects of biological weapons development.
He said the secure Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory at the institute was engaged in research on the Ebola, Nipah and Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever viruses.
The Wuhan virology institute is under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, but certain laboratories within it “have linkage with the PLA or BW-related elements within the Chinese defense establishment,” he said.
In 1993, China declared a second facility, the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products, as one of eight biological warfare research facilities covered by the Biological Weapons Convention, which China joined in 1985.
The Wuhan Institute of Biological Products is a civilian facility but is linked to the Chinese defense establishment. Mr. Shoham said it is thought to be involved in the Chinese Biological Weapons Convention program. China’s vaccine against SARS is probably produced there.
“This means the SARS virus is held and propagated there, but it is not a new coronavirus unless the wild type has been modified, which is not known and cannot be speculated at the moment,” he said.
“Information indicates that the People’s Republic of China engaged during the reporting period in biological activities with potential dual-use applications, which raises concerns regarding its compliance with the BWC,” said the report, adding that the United States suspects China failed to eliminate its biological warfare program as required by the treaty.
“The United States has compliance concerns with respect to Chinese military medical institutions’ toxin research and development because of the potential dual-use applications and their potential as a biological threat,” the report said.
The biosafety lab is about 20 miles from the Hunan Seafood Market, which reports from China say may have been the origin point of the virus.
Rutgers University microbiologist Richard Ebright told London’s Daily Mail that “at this point there’s no reason to harbor suspicions” that the lab may be linked to the virus outbreak.
Experts in population mapping at the University of Southampton have identified cities and provinces within mainland China, and cities and countries worldwide, which are at high-risk from the spread of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV).
A report by the University’s WorldPop team has found Bangkok (Thailand) is currently the city most at risk from a global spread of the virus – based on the number of air travelers predicted to arrive there from the worst affected cities in mainland China. Hong Kong (China) is second on the list, followed by Taipei (Taiwan, the Republic of China). Sydney (12), New York (16) and London (19) are among 30 other major international cities ranked in the research.
The most ‘at-risk’ countries or regions worldwide are Thailand (1), Japan (2) and Hong Kong (3). USA is placed 6th on the list, Australia 10th and the UK 17th.
Within mainland China, the cities of Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Chongqing are all identified as high-risk by the researchers, along with the Chinese provinces of Guangdong, Zhejiang, Sichuan, and Henan.
Full data can be found in the report on the WorldPop website.
Andrew Tatem, Director of WorldPop and professor within Geography and Environmental Science at the University of Southampton, says: “It’s vital that we understand patterns of population movement, both within China and globally, in order to assess how this new virus might spread – domestically and internationally. By mapping these trends and identifying high-risk areas, we can help inform public health interventions, such as screenings and healthcare preparedness.”
The team at WorldPop used anonymized mobile phone and IP address data (2013-15)1, along with international air travel data (2018)2 to understand typical patterns of movement of people within China, and worldwide, during the annual 40-day Lunar New Year celebrations (including the seven day public holiday from January 24 to 30).
From this, they identified 18 Chinese cities (including Wuhan) at high-risk from the new coronavirus and established the volume of air passengers likely to be traveling from these cities to global destinations (over a three month period). The team was then able to rank the top 30 most at-risk countries and cities around the world.
The researchers acknowledge that their analysis is based on ‘non-outbreak’ travel patterns, but highlight that a high proportion of people traveled with symptoms at an early stage of the outbreak, before restrictions were put in place. In fact, travel cordons are likely to have only coincided with the latter stages of peak population numbers leaving Wuhan for the holiday period. According to Wuhan authorities, it is likely more than five million people had already left the city.
Lead report author Dr. Shengjie Lai of the University of Southampton comments: “The spread of the new coronavirus is a fast moving situation and we are closely monitoring the epidemic in order to provide further up-to-date analysis on the likely spread, including the effectiveness of the transport lockdown in Chinese cities and transmission by people returning from the Lunar New Year holiday, which has been extended to February 2.”