I’ve been wanting to write about bioweapons for a while — partially because I know a modest amount about the whole disarmament process, through working with the nonproliferation community for as long as I have, and partially because it is so (pathologically) interesting. Regarding nonproliferation, I’ve worked with the scientists at PNNL on many a design project involving my students, and some need that they might have when they travel overseas to someplace like Kazakhstan to assure compliance with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and their monitoring of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The treaty has been, in my opinion, one of the most successful of all the global treaties, with really only a couple of notable failures — Pakistan and North Korea being among them. That’s not the point of this piece — and you can read all about it on the Wikipedia page.
The question many people are likely asking is “why bioweapons?” And if they know much about any of this, then it’s got to be paired with the question “why now?” Indeed. But the problem with discussing anything that’s relevant about bioweapons is that the minute someone like myself brings it up, then we run into what I call “Disqualifying Narrative” problems. Certainly the idea of a super-bug brings up all sorts of accusations of conspiracy thinking, because so little of it seems to make sense, on the surface. Couple that with the fact that most people can’t even conceive how you might release a SuperBug into the world — it’s not like a missile with a button that you hit and then the missile flies to its target (a potential, but not likely distribution mechanism for bioweapons) — and you get sorted into the kook category pretty quickly.
And supposedly, we actually have an international treaty basically banning bioweapons, called the Biological Weapons Convention, (BWC) created in 1975, and no one wants to discuss the issue. But the BWC is really not in the same classification of security as the various treaties dedicated to nuclear disarmament. The same institutional structure for inspection is not there. Nuclear weapons are, at some level, relatively easy to inspect for — radiation leaves signatures everywhere, and the equipment is relatively standardized if you want to enrich to the point where you can make a bomb.
But bioweapons are different. Sure — to handle them safely, one has to conform to the various Biosafety Level protections . This is a great Wikipedia page because it shows where all the labs ostensibly are — and I can tell you that more than a few of the hardcore facilities have been left off the list. The real problem is that any biological experimentation lab that might be used for germ research can easily be converted into a biological weapons lab relatively quickly. And of course, the real problem with inspection, that the reverse is true. Just shovel a couple of trays of smallpox into the autoclave, and bye-bye incriminating specimens.
The problem is that those labs are everywhere. China alleges, for example, that Ukraine has upwards of 25 biological research stations that could potentially be bioweapons labs. Who even knows how many hidden facilities are extant in China — talk about pot calling the kettle black. And scientists are going to science — there is simply not an overriding moral conscience in the scientific community against any type of weapons research. If there’s money, it’s going to get done.
But why would anyone want them in the first place? When these treaties were signed and developed back in the mid 1970s, a whole host of genetic technologies only existed in science fiction novels. I don’t claim to be an expert on tools like CRISPR, which allows direct gene editing. More information at the Wikipedia page. The thing about CRISPR is that it does not require tons of money, nor large infrastructure, like what you have to have to enrich uranium or create plutonium. I’d argue it’s a little more than what you’d put in the kitchen sink, but definitely possible for use on a small scale.
So they’re cheap. And as we continue to figure out lasting patterns in the biological coding that creates us all, we can expect more acts of miracles and wonder, as well more heinous acts that have the potential to threaten our survival.
Sorta. The real problem with any gene editing process is probably not in our various attempts at creation. The real problem is with unintended consequences downstream — the whole metacognitive deal. We are still likely some distance from creating intentionally a SuperBug that could wipe out humanity. Why? Because we have some 500 million years of evolutionary gene editing (including a couple of mass extinctions) that have decisively show that multicellular organisms have extreme advantages over their single-celled counterparts. Our own immune systems are multi-layer stacks of amazing tech, refined over the literal eons. That’s been one of the wildest aspects to me of the whole COVID paranoia nightmare — believing that a piece of cloth, and eliminating an entire human function (exhaling) could possibly pro-salutary. It requires a certain level of extreme hubris that we have witnessed from the epidemiological and medical communities that is literally mind-blowing. That’s where the Black Swan swims.
Back to the central question — why would a country want biological weapons in the first place? The answer is in the memetics, embedded in the power dynamics of nations. One of the true epiphanies I had was when I was invited to a large role-playing game on nuclear disarmament at PNNL. Run by Ambassador Tom Graham, one of the senior negotiators in all of our disarmament treaties. At the beginning of the exercise, the Ambassador said something to the effect of “Never forget that all nations are hegemons. They remain supremely interested in only themselves, and assuming otherwise will lead to incorrect negotiation practice.” No more Mister Nice Guy. Because they never were.
That means that all Power rivalries are always dominated by Authoritarian dynamics — whoever is the stronger, who can take the most damage, will prevail. All that seems relatively obvious, of course. But what that really means in a unipolar world, where the United States, with some help from its various alliance partners, has been the big kid on the block for at least the last 30 years, is there are a lot of frustrated actors.
And here’s the rub. That’s not likely to change any time soon. Without some technology that reverses the most incredible social technology of our time — the modern aircraft carrier — everyone else is literally incapacitated. Nuclear weapons are only a game changer in the large sense, that their use will drive any nation-state down into the Survival v-Meme, where maximal aggregate neuroplasticity makes everyone shy away from nuclear confrontation.
And they do this, even with small pariah states like North Korea. Get a nuke, and it’s pretty much guaranteed if you want to remain an outlaw nation, even the US will let you. Even if it involves letting your own people starve.
But just because nuclear weapons have been (sorta) moved off the table does not mean that the collapsed egocentric desires of nations have been banished. The memetics of nation-states simply doesn’t permit that. What it means is that nations, even if they possess nuclear weapons, will move for acquisition of other weapons that permit maneuvering in negotiation with more powerful opponents. And since the US has basically taken conventional weapons off the table, that leaves nations like China searching for real alternatives to pushing the nuclear button. Enter bioweapons stage right.
Everything I’ve read has led me to believe, with high confidence, that COVID was a bioweapon, as well as an accidental lab release. There’s simply too much information embedded in proposals like the Ecohealth Alliance’s request to DARPA (the original, which is tough reading is here). What’s so crazy to me is that even investigative outlets like The Intercept lack the institutional knowledge that DARPA’s rejection of the proposal, and subsequent funding by Tony Fauci’s NIAID organization was likely a diversion — not a rejection — and the US would have likely had many reasons for having observers inside the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China. If you’re a reader of this blog, the statistics are that you’re a smart person. THINK about it. We are counting on people who must have difficulty patting their head and rubbing their tummy at the same time to investigate one of the most important stories of our time.
What kind of bioweapon was it? You might watch this video and decide for yourself. I’ve sponsored this young reporter for a number of years. His main asset? He is sharp, of course. But most importantly, he is absolutely fluent in reading and writing Mandarin. I asked my wife (she’s native Taiwanese) to check the statements made, where basically members of the People’s Republic Army admitted that they have been conducting research with the intent to infect groups of individuals with different racial and ethnic profiles from Han Chinese.
The problem with all this is not the veracity of the content. I actually trust the reportage in the piece, and the various connections (like purchase of genotyping companies is easy enough to run down.) The problem that it is outside the Overton Window of acceptability regarding the culpability of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in doing this kind of work. In the USA, though we constantly argue that our government is not representative of American intents and interests, we are unwilling to understand nor apply the same leniency toward our interpretation of Chinese people. We do not differentiate between the Chinese people and the CCP, which is sad.
But the CCP, even being charitable, is as I stated above, its own hegemon, headed by an extremely Authoritarian autocrat, with an active propaganda machine very much interested in “leaning into” Americans’ predilection on recasting every controversial conversation into one regarding race and ethnicity. So while the Chinese is certainly conducting bioweapons research at the Wuhan Institute, the CCP can play the race card if any individual like myself attempts to call them out on it — even if their own members of the PRA talk about it. That’s how embarrassingly ignorant and easily manipulable we are. We are literally woke dopes.
In order to understand why the CCP would be interested in bioweapons, though, we need to understand the CCP’s own hegemonic intentions. With the US military basically enjoying a conventional weapons dominant position across the world, China’s own imperial ambitions have been channeled into other “soft power” public angles — like the Belt and Road initiative.
And these are not such a bad idea from a Chinese perspective. But it still doesn’t provide, at least with respect to dealing with their main adversary — the US. And it’s more complicated than that. The US, as China’s main trading partner, is vital for the CCP in keeping its burgeoning middle class in jobs. They mess with us too much, and there’s an economic collapse IN CHINA in the offing.
That’s what makes bioweapons so attractive. The CCP develops the bioweapons, and holds at the same time, the antidote. (For those wondering how this might work, look at the lag between the release of the COVID genome, and the first blueprints for the vaccine.) The USA does something like prevent a Chinese occupation of Taiwan. So the CCP, through some technology for viral dispersal like cloud seeding, spreads a virus over an area that limits involvement from exactly that overwhelming conventional military force that might prevent them from fulfilling their ambitions. And if we back off, they give us the antidote (or vaccine). They achieve their goals.
And no nukes are involved. China simply couldn’t afford any detonation of nukes on their homeland — a modest-sized Chinese city runs around 5 million people, and there are a lot of them. What would happen with even one city, or 5 million Chinese people on the move after a nuclear detonation? But with bioweapons? They occupy the exact niche needed for a lesser hegemon to exert pressure on a greater one. Would we risk nuclear war if all our troops simply got sick during a Chinese territorial acquisition? I don’t think so.
And now maybe we can get a glimpse into why Ukraine would host so many potential bioweapons labs on its soil. I’ve read through the various construction documents for these facilities, all funded by the U.S. Department of Defense. They’re bland documents, save for who footed the bill. If you wanted to hide intent, the least you could is get the USDA or something to fund the facilities. Here is Victoria Nuland basically admitting to the whole deal, while then attempting to pin the blame on the Russians.
It’s stunning how stupid they are, in assuming that there aren’t people who exist who can see through their absolute bullshit. The problem is that people like Victoria Nuland is the one setting policy, while I’m just a professor writing on a modestly read blog.
The main thing is that we can now meaningfully string together the Authoritarian v-Meme strategies that would argue for bioweapons. You have a nation-state, threatened not so much by nuclear weapons, but by a vastly superior conventional army, looking to deter invasion, or execute an action that might involve armed conflict to achieve some local goal. Nukes won’t really help except in an extreme survival situation — nuclear weapons are really less-than-worthless because of their game-ending potential.
But tailored bioweapons? Maybe not such a bad idea. You can get a leg up in the power hierarchy on the bad dude at the top.
The problem with all of this, even from a strategic standpoint, is that a conjured up bioweapon with ultimate performance is far from being engineered. Any weapons program involves dozens of iterations, with tests, and those tests inevitably fail. Missiles are launched hundreds of times, exploding on the pad, or halfway to their target, before one gets the kind of reliability that generates the photo ad copy for the International Defence Exhibition & Conference, or IDEX, held in Abu Dhabi, or Defence & Security Equipment International (DSEI) in London.
But bioweapons are even more problematic. You can shoot a missile and realize that it worked, or didn’t, and don’t have to worry much about follow-up. How exactly that might work with bioweapons doesn’t fit into my imagination — well, without the introduction of intentional crimes against humanity. There are only so many Syrian Golden Hamsters (the COVID animal model currently preferred) to infect.
And then there are other “problems” (said intentionally euphemistically.) Any group of scientists seeking a more realistic release environment, as Peter Daszak and Ecohealth Alliance did when they proposed (and likely had partially executed) spraying bats with SARS-Cov-2 in caves in Yunnan, inherently run the risk of broader release. Bats fly — even if the researchers were “sure” there couldn’t be zoonotic transfer. Who knows what could happen? Or rather, in the case of COVID, what did happen. And then blame it on the poors running the adjacent wet market.
It gets worse. For any problem we might have with unexploded ordinance (UXO) or leftover depleted uranium, viruses are incomprehensibly more dangerous. Viruses mutate, in strange and unpredictable ways. So a virus only designed (and that’s the right word) to kill white folks and spare people of Asian descent, might mutate and backfire and create a generalized pandemic. We may even be seeing this now, with the waves of COVID sweeping the Asian nations. Finally, the mutation got to the point where any preferential infectious behavior toward the target audience was finally mutated out. We can’t really know — but once again, it is far from a conspiracy. It’s just the laws of viral physics playing out.
Which, as I said above, have vast metacognitive risks. We just can’t know what we don’t know. And in lower v-Meme societies, unfortunately, like most of the hegemons the good Ambassador talked about above, our sense of unintended consequences doesn’t even realistically exist. That’s what a lack of development can do — have us engineer our own destruction, and we won’t even know it. And in any reflective history (if there’s anyone around to do the reflecting) we likely will say it was something that “just happened.” It’s bonkers.
So, is it an unrealistic conspiracy, or some kind of escape hatch for Putin (I am absolutely sure the Russians are running a large bioweapons program, so don’t start with that ‘Putin apologist’ nonsense) to say that they were invading Ukraine because of bioweapons? Hardly. And would the US have a motive for sponsoring that kind of work? What could be better to deter Russia? Having Ukraine join NATO? Are you kidding? Hegemons love to let other folks do their dirty work. That’s the beauty of the collapsed egocentric personality type. And then cry “victim”, of course. Go back and watch that Victoria Nuland video again.
And here’s another memetic subtext. We, as a society, can’t even HAVE a meaningful conversation about bioweapons. COVID has shown us that. The media will pounce, and out the Overton Window I’ll go. OBVIOUSLY a conspiracy theory. Except, of course, it’s not at all. And considering how many civil/military applications we’ve been told can exist side-by-side, even writing this is a disqualifying narrative. Especially because no red string or bread crumbs are involved.
It boggles my mind how insane the mainstream press is. Just exactly WHAT do they think happens in labs like this? And what will happen to the status of science in a society that continues to permit this kind of behavior?
What is the long game for a society that counts on this level of end-of-the-world gaslighting to conduct its politics?
As usual, I’ll end this piece with my usual call for greater empathy and its accompanying sister, thought complexity. And I’m usually an optimist. But here, the smart bet is on our millions of years of evolutionary adaptation to protect us from our own mendacity and stupidity. It might be the way to bet. But it’s embarrassing.