Ten years ago China was worried about race based genetic bioweapons — Hello Biotech Cold War?

China lion statues, Taiwan.

Image by AngMoKio

For anyone trained in genetics the news that China warned of the potential for race based genetic bioweapons in 2011 is just stating what any good SciFi writer has known for years. But the macabre detail may help wake up the rest of the world to the idea “What if”. What would a New Biotech Cold War look like, and does it look like this?

China was spelling out some toe-curling recipes: warning that new biotech could pump up the virulence of infectious agents; it could neutralize antibiotics and vaccines, or potentially make the “target” population more vulnerable by disabling specific genes. Theoretically, adversaries could add genetic material covertly. How about some involuntary “Gene Therapy”coming to an airconditioning system near you?

But hey, they were just speculating right?

Funnily enough, a guy called Miles Yu was working for Mike Pompeo, advising him on China, and he raised the existence of the Chinese submission with the US State Department last December. Pompeo ordered an investigation, but they couldn’t find a copy of China’s original submission at the time (it’s only a global UN convention, yeah?). But when Joe Biden was sworn in, the investigation was shut down. (They don’t call him Xiden for nothing. ) But Sharri Markson, or someone at The Australian, found it.

And Mr Yu said: “it send chills up my spine”.

How’s that UN Treaty against Biological Weapons going?

UN logoBeijing’s own 2011 declaration to the UN, Biological Weapons Convention reads rather chillingly in hindsight. Though The Australian is not suggesting Covid-19 was a biological weapon or that China has carried out an attack.

China’s warning on man-made viruses

by Sharri Markson and Jack Hazelwood, The Australian

The Chinese government admitted research to create man-made viruses posed “a huge latent threat to mankind” – and said “accidental mistakes in biotech laboratories can place mankind in great danger”…

Chinese authorities also spoke of the “increased threat of biological weapons” and discussed using viruses as “genetic weapons” saying systems biology “can also create the potential for biological weapons based on genetic differences between races”…

..research could “significantly increase the destructiveness of biological weapons” by “making biological attacks more stealthy”.

So there was China in 2011 admitting to the Biological Weapons Convention that there might be trouble complying with the rules. So much for UN State Party agreements which grew out of a 1972 declaration, and is now a major treaty that is reviewed every five years.

By 2016, China was talking about a more sophisticated problem:

It says “foreign genes or viruses can be introduced into the target population asymptomatically by means of gene-therapy vectors, enabling a biological weapon attack to be mounted covertly”.

This could mean a two stage event where stage one was silently introducing a section of code to a target population, that could be used later.

And admissions like this in 2016 sit a little awkwardly with 2020 protests that lab leaks don’t need investigation:

“Accidental mistakes in biotech laboratories can place mankind in great danger,” it states.

Righto.

Hands up who thinks UN inspectors would be able to stop clandestine government laboratories from creating Black Death 2.0 even if the UN inspectors wanted to…

Even if they had an implementation body to assess compliance, which they don’t, they would also need an enforcement process.

Time to ditch the UN, and get serious about assessing the threat and how to respond.

Just another cold war

The weapons are different, but the rules stay the same.

A transmission electron micrograph (TEM) of a number of Lassa virus virions adjacent to some cell debris.

Lassa virus,   Photo Credit: C. S. Goldsmith

Translate a few tactics from the last cold war:

Firstly, there’s always deterrence — misbehaving nations need to feel some heat.

We don’t need to know if the virus was deliberately released, we already know that China did not play good global citizen in warning the world and stopping the spread in January 2020, when it could have been stopped so easily. Global trade and travel sanctions are a threat to a corrupt leadership. There should be a price when a nation doesn’t report a new contagion with honesty and openness.

Secondly, there’s Part I of the Biotech Arms Race —  You have one nasty virus, we have 1,000:  The MAD doctrine in the cold war meant both sides had obscenely powerful weapons to unleash. The problem was and is that destructive weapons sometimes destruct. Nuclear accidents happen, and so do laboratory leaks. Not a sweetness-and-light kind of world to live in.

Thirdly, there’s Part II of the Arms Race: Build the “Star Wars” of Biotech: For every nasty virus there will be ways to intercept. While China was dreaming of bioweapons in 2011, JoNova was advising we dump the Clean Green renewables fantasies and get into the real medical revolution instead.

We need a mastery of medical science like never before. That means finding faster ways to detect new viruses,  and building molecular tools that chop up viral sequences. We can already screen antiviral cheap chemicals in a matter of weeks (and if we reduce the Medical Swamp we might even start using them too). We could get very good with CRISPR and go right into cells and cut the offending code out, or we might swamp the code with anti-sense RNA that sticks to offending sequences and renders them harmless. Then there are monoclonal antibodies, or nanobodies that do the work our immune system is supposed to do, but in the lab, not in a sick body.

We have so many tools, but right now, they are the planes of pre-World War I.

Covid is a baby biotech weapon. The next ones could be so much nastier.

Ebola Virus, electron micrograph

Ebola Virus budding from a African Green Monkey kidney Cell.       Author BernbaumJG

REFERENCE

Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction, UNODA, UN Office for Disarmament Affairs.

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June 28, 2021 at 02:13PM

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