The SARS-CoV-2 virus that led to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic across the globe is not the first time a dangerous virus under the supervision of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) biological warfare efforts has leaked out from a lab in China.
At that time, China’s spin to the world is that the virus most likely jumped from animals to humans. The strategy to deflect the focus from its biological weapons capabilities to a natural occurrence was adopted during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) pandemic in 2002. China’s spin to the world in the COVID-19 pandemic follows a similar strategy that virus most likely jumped from animals to humans and ‘extremely unlikely’ it came from Wuhan Virology Lab.
Even the scientific opinion on the source of SARS–confirmed by the World Health Organization (WHO) on April 16, 2003, towed China’s line pointing out to a strain of the coronavirus thought to have originated in animals. The earliest victims of SARS are reported to have been people in Guangdong who either ate or handled game or fowl.
The World Health Organization had confirmed that breaches of safety procedures on at least two occasions at one of Beijing’s top virology laboratories were the probable cause of the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) there last month, which infected nine people, one of whom died.
Dr. Julie Hall, WHO co-ordinator in China during SARS, opined that “Clearly there was a link to the Institute of Virology, and our investigations are still ongoing, but we haven’t found a single incident that links the two cases of laboratory workers at the institute, so it appears to be two separate breaches of bio-safety, and we can’t find any single incident or accident that explains either case. It has raised real concerns about bio-safety in general, how bio-safety guidelines are implemented, and how that is supervised and monitored
The WHO now too in 2020 follows a similar game plan of defending China as it did in 2003:
WHO in its investigative report ‘Origins of SARS-Cov-2’ states that the seafood market in Wuhan City was the source of this Coronavirus outbreak or played a role in the initial amplification of the outbreak.
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General, WHO said, “The team has confirmed that there was widespread contamination with SARS-CoV-2 in the Huanan market in Wuhan, but could not determine the source of this contamination.”
Interestingly in 2003, a Russian scientist Sergei Kolesnikov who was a member of the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences to a Russian news service, “The propagation of atypical pneumonia (SARS) may well be caused by a leak of a combat virus grown in Asian bacteriological weapons labs.” He further asserted in his discussion with the media, that the SARS virus was a mixture of measles and mumps-one that could not occur naturally. “We can only get that in a laboratory.”
Not only in 2002 but also in 1980 there was reportedly an accident in a lab where Chinese scientists were weaponizing viral diseases.
In a 1999 book titled Biohazard, former deputy director of Biopreparat – Soviet’s Biological Agency – remarks that Soviet Intelligence reported about a possible incident in which China experienced a leak of biological weapons.
“In northwestern China, satellite photos detected what appeared to be a large fermenting plant and a biocontainment lab close to a nuclear testing ground. Intelligence sources found evidence of two epidemics of hemorrhagic fever in the area in the late 1980s, where these diseases were previously unknown. Our analyst concluded that they were caused by an accident in a lab where Chinese scientists were weaponizing viral diseases.”
In November 2019, just before the first cases of COVID-19 began to emerge, reportedly more than 6,620 people in North-West China were infected with brucellosis – a bacteria disease with flu-like symptoms, after a leak at the Lanzhou Veterinary Research Institute.
In a report ‘Biosafety threats of the rapidly established labs for SARS-CoV-2 tests in China’ authored by Chinese scientist Dan Yuan, Wenfeng Gao, Shu Liang, Shujuan Yang, and Peng Jia:
During 9–11 March 2020, the first comprehensive evaluation of the biosafety in all 89 labs qualified for conducting SARS-CoV-2 tests in Sichuan Province of China was conducted. The degree of compliance with 39 criteria in five categories was evaluated: biosafety requirements for lab activities (14 criteria), sample transfer, acceptance and management (6 criteria), waste management (9 criteria), personnel training and protection (4 criteria), and lab environmental disinfection, emergency plans and accident handling (6 criteria).
The results revealed that, although an overall median compliance rate of 94.6% for 39 criteria, only four of 89 labs met all of them. Criteria in personnel training and protection have been most satisfactorily met, followed by lab environmental disinfection, emergency plans, and accident handling.
The most severe risk was the lack of automatic doors at the main entrance or in core operation areas, especially among labs in CDC and hospitals. This risk, together with failure for keeping pressure in the core operation areas 25 ± 5 Pa (mainly among labs in the third-party testing agencies), may cause accidental exposure to biological agents from lab activities.
Other severe risks included failure for standard labeling of SARS-CoV-2 wastes and lacking regular monitoring of sterilization effects
Experiences from China will be crucial to continuing strengths and overcoming those potential risks during the procedures for ensuring lab biosafety, especially in middle and low-income countries that cannot afford consequences resulting from avoidable risks as do high-income countries. Therefore, there is an urgent need for the involvement of multiple disciplines and international collaboration to build more robust biosafety systems for improved biosafety.