Geneva, Easter Sunday (12 April) 2020
Let’s stay with the theme of lies and truth. Yesterday, I went off on epidemiological statistics about this pandemic being manipulated or misrepresented. This is nothing compared with the big league of bio-untruths: political propaganda and conspiracy theories.
A number of people have asked me about the possible origin of this particular coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). Is it really from a wild animal food market in Wuhan? Is it from bats? Is it from a pangolin? Is it linked to the biosecurity lab in Wuhan? Was there a governmental cover-up in the early stages of the epidemic there? Was it imported to China from America? My only credentials for commenting on this come from having worked on the project “Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity” during my time with the International Committee of the Red Cross; this involved no small interaction with states’ representatives to the UN’s 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (Full title: Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction. Let’s just say “BWC.”) This is a disarmament convention of the highest importance to international security and therefore to humanity; this is why 183 nations are party to it. Within the BWC discourse, genuine concerns and well-founded suspicions can be voiced although most can only be viewed through smoke and mirrors. It is also a field that attracts a whole host of conspiracies and fallacies; you get used to these and learn to recognise them from a safe distance.
The BWC has an interesting history. It was first proposed to the international community by the USA because American scientists managed to convince the Nixon administration that biological weapons were of no military value as long as they, the USA, had nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union saw the wisdom of this and eagerly came on board (but carried on with their bio-weapons programmes anyway.) In rather typical disarmament double-dweeble, biological weapons became known as the poor man’s nuclear weapon whilst nuclear weapons states claimed they needed their nuclear weapons to deter any threat of use of biological weapons. Within this, the health community (read WHO) whilst understandably wishing to avoid getting mired in the international security implications, stipulated that whether the cause of an epidemic was natural or man-made, the public health response would be the same. This is a stance that I have always fundamentally disagreed with. If an epidemic were ever seen as an intentional act of a state, group or individual, the reaction would obviously involve a public health element but this would be embedded in and ultimately subsumed by a huge security response that would not exclude use of military force. Making a distinction between a natural outbreak and the intentional spread of disease is very, very important.
Here are my thoughts. This pandemic is serious enough. We do not need American commentators saying the virus came from a Chinese bioweapons lab and we do not need Chinese commentators saying the virus originated in an American bioweapons lab. Both sides know that such claims represent barely veiled accusations of violation of the BWC. No state takes this lightly. Raising the spectre of bioweapons in relation to this pandemic through accusation is very, very dangerous.
The UN Secretary General, António Guterres, a good man who doesn’t miss a trick, addressed the Security Council three days ago. The sixth of eight risks to international security he identified in relation to the pandemic was that “the weaknesses and lack of preparedness exposed by this pandemic provide a window onto how a bioterrorist attack might unfold – and may increase its risks. Non-state groups could gain access to virulent strains that could pose similar devastation to societies around the globe.” Those familiar with BWC speak will recognise that this is as close as he can go to making reference to state-backed bio-weapons programmes. He knows that the line between state on “non-state” activity in this domain is not clear and bright; he also knowns that if a non-state actor were to use a biological warfare agent to intentionally spread disease, the most likely source of that agent would be a state programme.
So above you have my thoughts about the propaganda, theories and all other loony-baloony stuff that is circulating like the virus itself. Here is my advice. Bear in mind that any assessment of whether or not there’s a sinister cause for this outbreak can only be made authoritatively by a UN Security Council mechanism and that would involve a neutral stance, a ton of diplomacy, the best of science, the coolest of heads and time. Don’t believe anything unless it comes direct from Mr Guterres.
Given the above, it may seem to be of little import but… I won the putting competition today on the first play-off hole. That’s 14 games to 6.