The major world powers must become more transparent and forthright regarding biomedical research. A simple misstep or miscalculation could subject the world to a frightening pandemic that may create much greater damage than the COVID-19 virus or the current war in Ukraine. Pictured: Virologist Shi Zhengli (left) in a laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China, on February 23, 2017. (Photo by Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images)
Is there a clear distinction between biolabs and bioweapons laboratories? Here is how paper, written by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology student, discussed the issue:
"The argument isn't uncommon, referring to the fine line walked by scientists that can slide (and very occasionally has) from the helpful biological countermeasures to the deceitful biological weapons. The creation of the latter while claiming the former is known as dual-use research. In the 1950s, scientists were accused of this behavior when they developed a novel version of the polio virus, used to create the polio vaccine. Critics argued the release of this virus could decimate an unprepared population while the scientists tried to reassure them it was only for the beneficial cause of a miracle treatment."
In 2002, following the September 11 attacks and the anthrax letters, the United States allocated money to build two maximum containment biology labs. Called Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) facilities, these labs were built to research new vaccines, diagnostics, and treatments for emerging infectious diseases, potential biological weapons, and to contribute to the nation's biodefense. These labs were not the first dramatic reaction to the threat of biowarfare, and are in fact, one product of a long history of the country's contentious relationship with biological weapons.
This discussion was outlined in a thesis written in 2013 about a BSL-4 facility being considered for construction in the heart of Boston. These labs can be controversial even when governments are being fully transparent, and will certainly be controversial when governments are secretive -- because whether designed and intended for the public good, these labs can be converted easily for nefarious, dual-use purposes.
It is what many of us believe about the Wuhan Institute of Virology, in China, where COVID-19 might have originated and leaked. The Wuhan laboratory was likely doing some scientific research, but a part of the facility also was under the control of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), doing bioweapons research.
The bottom line is that biomedical research, as indicated above, can provide tremendous benefits, but also can produce horrific pathogens that may kill millions. How do you distinguish when you suspect one country may be developing bioweapons and you want to be able to prevent them from being successful? That is the exact dilemma that the world finds itself in today.
The discussion about biolabs and bioweapons has become such a hot topic that it has become part of what one could call the propaganda war between Russia, China, and the U.S. The issue is so potent, that U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, rightly warned that Russia could be setting a pretext for a "false flag" attack, after Russia recently alleged Ukraine was working with the U.S. on a secret bioweapons program.
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made the claim that one of the reasons Russia needed to invade Ukraine was because of dangerous biolabs located in the country with potential stockpiles of bioweapons. It is not the first time Russia has made such a claim. It made the same accusation about a lab in the Republic of Georgia in 2018. Similarly, the Chinese Communist Party has pointed to the U.S. Army biomedical research facility at Fort Dietrick in Maryland, claiming it was a potential source of the COVID-19 virus.
For its part, the U.S. has highlighted the work being done with coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology as one of the potential sources of the COVID-19 virus. This admission has led to an ongoing and vigorous debate about whether the virus was engineered or developed naturally.
It is ironic that the war in Ukraine has resulted in the calls by the Chinese government through its foreign ministry to clarify what American biolabs are doing and allow for multilateral inspections. The Chinese Communist government describes the work in these facilities as biological militarization. It is also ironic because in the case of Covid 19, the Chinese Communist Party government has restricted access to the Wuhan laboratory, destroyed information, and delayed the sharing of information on the virus with the world community. The Wuhan laboratory has never been opened to a multilateral, independent inspection team despite the world having experienced more than six million COVID-19 deaths.
Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party has been clear about its own intentions to develop and potentially use bioweapons. Colonel Guo Ji-wei and other PLA scientific researchers have promoted biological weapons and "bio-based" war in Chinese military journals. In "The Unnatural Origin of SARS and New Species of Man-Made Viruses as genetic Bioweapons," Chinese military scientists even suggest that World War III will be fought with biological weapons.
As for the biolabs in Ukraine, the U.S. has its own explanations. After the fall of the Soviet Union, according to PolitiFact, the U.S. Department of Defense Cooperative Threat Reduction Program has provided technical support to public health labs in Ukraine similar to our CDC. The labs are run by the host countries, contrary to claims, and the people quoted by PolitiFact say the accusations are pure propaganda from Russia and China without any basis.
In fact, the Biden administration was so unconcerned with these claims that Victoria Nuland, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, gave an awkward answer to a simple question about the program in testimony before the Senate. Her response was seized upon immediately by Russia's state-controlled Russia Today and Glenn Greenwald, who is a major critic of support for Ukraine.
With COVID-19, the Wuhan lab, a hot war in Europe, and growing discussion about bioweapons -- whether it is propaganda or has some elements of truth -- the major world powers must become more transparent and forthright regarding biomedical research. Current medical breakthroughs are revolutionizing health care treatments available to everyone around the world. A simple misstep or miscalculation, however, could subject the world to a frightening pandemic that may create much greater damage than the COVID-19 virus or the current war in Ukraine. Now is the time for world leaders to respond to this emerging threat with greater transparency. Tomorrow may be too late.
Peter Hoekstra was US Ambassador to the Netherlands during the Trump administration. He served 18 years in the U.S. House of Representatives representing the second district of Michigan and served as Chairman and Ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. He is currently Chairman of the Center for Security Policy Board of Advisors, and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.