JULY 24, 2020
COVID-19 and Bioweapons Research
by SEIJI YAMADA
Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair
The anthrax attacks of 2001 were carried out via mail. Anthrax was sent via the US Postal Service
to members of Congress and media executives together with notes reading “Death to America,”
and “Allah is great.” Five died. In the weeks following the September 11 attacks, the intent of the
perpetrators was to make it appear that the anthrax was being sent by Islamic militants.
The anthrax itself was weaponized. Natural anthrax is found in the soil and rarely causes human
disease. The weaponized anthrax spores were designed to easily float in the air and thereby more
easily infect its victims. The weaponized anthrax was identified as originating in the U.S.
government laboratories. Genetic analysis identified it to be from the Ames strain, isolated from a
cow in Texas in 1981, and studied at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of
Infectious Disease (USAMRIID), Fort Detrick, Maryland. A U.S. government scientist was
identified as a suspect, but he committed suicide before being taken into custody. For an analysis
of how the anthrax attacks followed the playbook of the June 2001 “Dark Winter” preparedness
exercise, see Whitney Webb and Raul Diego’s “All Roads Lead To Dark Winter.”
The so-called biodefense complex is inherently dangerous. While the stated intent of biodefense
research is to develop the means of countering attacks – in order to do so, scientists often create
virulent pathogens in order to determine the means of responding to them. The process by which
microorganisms are artificially made more virulent is called “gain-in-function” research.
An example is how the H5N1 strain of influenza was manipulated in order to make it more easily
transmissible among humans. One technique is to infect ferrets with successive generations of a
virus. Because the ferret respiratory system has similarities to the human respiratory system at the
molecular level, such a technique produces viruses that can more easily infect humans. For
obvious reasons, the publication of such research was opposed by many in the scientific
Wuhan, the original epicenter of the current COVID-19 pandemic, has two microbiology
laboratories equipped to handle pathogenic microorganisms. Such labs are designated by their
biosafety levels, with BSL-4 being the highest. The Wuhan Centers for Disease Control is a BSL-
2 laboratory located within 100s of meters from the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, where
cases of COVID-19 were initially found. The Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) is the only
declared BSL-4 laboratory in China.
The WIV is responsible for much of the coronavirus research in China. Early on in the epidemic,
we learned that the virus responsible for COVID-19 is similar to the coronavirus responsible for
the 2002-2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV): therefore its scientific name,
SARS-CoV-2 or SARS coronavirus 2. Moreover, we learned that researchers from the WIV had
collected a coronavirus from bats in Yunnan Province with 96% homology to (sharing 96% of its
genes with) SARS-CoV-2. Dr. Zhengli-Li Shi, as the head of this research group, takes her place
as the last author on the article.
Look at a map of China. Wuhan’s central location is what makes it a transportation hub. Yunnan
province, to the Southeast, borders Laos and Myanmar. There are a thousand kilometers between
Wuhan and the bat caves in Yunnan. The prevailing theory of the origins of the virus is that it
made its way into humans through the exotic animal food trade. The encroachment of industrial
agriculture into what is left of the wilderness created the conditions for the cross-species jump. It
would have a bat virus in Yunnan somehow making the species jump into humans, possibly
through an intermediary species, somewhere between Yunnan Province and a city (Wuhan) a
thousand miles away.
Isn’t it a more plausible scenario that the SARS-CoV-2 was collected in the Yunnan bat caves by
researchers from the WIV, brought by them to Wuhan, and somehow leaked from the laboratory?
There are a lot of BSL-4 laboratories in the U.S. Leaks happen at these labs.
Note that I am not suggesting that the SARS-CoV-2 was genomically bioengineered, nor that it
was created to be a bioweapon. Obviously, the SARS-CoV-2 genome is under close scientific
scrutiny, and we assume that molecular biologists would be able to detect such manipulation.
However, it is possible to manipulate a viral genome without a recourse to gene-splicing
techniques, such as the passing multiple generations through laboratory animals, as noted above
The researchers at the WIV have collaborated with American researchers, however, conducted
gain-of-function experiments utilizing gene-splicing techniques. See, for example, a 2015 paper
published in Nature, “A SARS-like cluster of circulating bat coronaviruses shows potential for
human emergence” authored by researchers mostly from the University of North Carolina (UNC),
but also by collaborators from Harvard, Switzerland, and Wuhan. Dr. Zhengli-Li Shi is the
Using the SARS-CoV reverse genetics system, we generated and characterized a
chimeric virus expressing the spike of bat coronavirus SHC014 in a mouse-adapted SARS-
That is to say, these scientists bioengineered a chimera, a Frankenvirus, from the old 2002-2003
SARS virus but with spikes from a different bat coronavirus. The Frankenvirus seems to be a
pretty tough customer:
Additionally, in vivo experiments demonstrate replication of the chimeric virus in mouse
lung with notable pathogenesis. Evaluation of available SARS-based immune-therapeutic
and prophylactic modalities revealed poor efficacy; both monoclonal antibody and vaccine
approaches failed to neutralize and protect from infection with CoVs using the novel spike
protein. On the basis of these findings, we synthetically re-derived an infectious full-length
SHC014 recombinant virus and demonstrate robust viral replication both in vitro and in
vivo. Our work suggests a potential risk of SARS-CoV re-emergence from viruses currently
circulating in bat populations.
That is, it’s hard to kill, it’s hard to immunize against, and it reproduces like gangbusters –
meaning that if it got loose, it might cause a . . . wait for it . . . a pandemic.
Wait, doctors, didn’t you take the money because you said you were going to come up with a
biodefense? Again, I am not suggesting that the SARS-CoV-2 was genomically bioengineered –
but these scientists are actively creating highly pathogenic organisms, then reporting their work in
the scientific literature. Sounds like a Pandora’s box to me.
Of note, this article was published during the period (2014-2017) while the National Institutes of
Health was not funding gain-of-function research – though exceptions were made for certain
institutions (such as UNC, Harvard, and the WIV). As reported by Sam Husseini, this study also
received funding from the US Agency for International Development and the EcoHealth Alliance.
Weapons systems, such as nuclear weapons, missiles, or drones, are developed with the intent of
gaining a military advantage over one’s enemies. Inevitably, though, enemies catch up – and the
end result is proliferation. As with other weapons, the downsides, the risks, and the costs of
bioweapons research are becoming more obvious. Also obvious is that we must put a stop to it.
More articles by:SEIJI YAMADA
Seiji Yamada, a native of Hiroshima, is a family physician practicing and teaching in Hawaii.