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There have been occasional speculations in Flublogia as to whether H5N1 could have been some how manipulated by man. When this has been discussed in Flublogia, the idea has often been dismissed as fear-mongering by conspiracy theorists. However, when the Minister of Health of Indonesia, Siti Fadilah Supari, suggested that the US would use Indonesian samples of H5N1 to create a biological weapon, the response from the public health establishment was muted. Prominent members of this group, such as Dr. Nabarro (UN panflu czar) continue to go to meetings with her. Dr. Supari retains her position as a member of the executive board of the WHO. Given that the charge has been made that H5N1 may be used as biological weapon by a prominent member of the international public health community, and that she is still apparently a member of this community in good standing, it is worth considering whether influenza could be used as a biological weapon and which country is most likely to employ it in this way.
One caveat at the outset: I am not a military strategist, so take all my statements about military thinking with a large grain of salt.
When talking about weapons, it is important to distinguish between tactical and strategic weapons. Tactical weapons are used to win specific battles and are narrowly focused. For example, an air-to-air missile used to destroy another fighter jet is a tactical weapon. Strategic weapons have broader applications, such as to destroy an enemy country’s ability and/or willingness to fight. The two atomic bombs dropped on Japan were used as strategic weapons.
Biological agents make poor tactical weapons. They are hard to target to specific people such as enemy combatants and, if they are highly infectious, likely to trigger epidemics in off-target populations which may multiply the number of enemies the user of such a weapon has to deal with. So, imo, influenza is unlikely to be used as a tactical weapon.
The use of biological weapons as strategic weapons is far more likely, imo. For example, there is great concern that anthrax or smallpox might be used as terrorist weapons. Although both of these agents have the potential to kill large numbers of people, anthrax can be treated with antibiotics and there is a vaccine for smallpox. Further, the use of either of these agents would likely provoke a very strong response, possibly including nuclear retaliation. Finally, such an attack would inspire revulsion on the part of most of the world and would likely multiply the number of enemies the user of such agents had to deal with. So, although attacks with anthrax or smallpox by irrational terrorists is possible, it is unlikely that any nation-state with a rational leader would employ such weapons.
Influenza is a naturally occurring pathogen that almost everyone is familiar with. As a result, it might not be obvious that a manipulated form was being used in an attack (Sydney Morning Herald, Madjid et al. 2003). Thus, it could be used surreptitiously, possibly without risk of detection by either the target or the world at large. And as we know only too well, influenza can be extremely deadly and resistant to any treatment. Given that the manipulators of the virus would have detailed knowledge of its antigenic properties, vaccines could be developed which could be tested ahead of time (Krug, 2003). Members of the attacking country’s military and the civilians it wanted to survive could be vaccinated before the manipulated strain was unleashed. Some members of the attacking country’s population could be left unvaccinated in order to maintain plausible deniability that it played any role in what would be called a natural catastrophe.
Who would have the capability and the motivation to launch an attack with a highly virulent influenza virus? Although terrorists immediately come to mind, I think they are unlikely suspects. First, they lack the technical sophistication necessary to design a flu virus and a vaccine against it. Second, they lack a motive. Although such a virus would accomplish their goal of killing a lot of people and disrupting the world economic system, the countries from which the terrorists come are not self-sufficient in food or medicine and are likely to be depopulated in the event of a high CFR pandemic. Thus, I believe that the most likely source of an influenza biological weapon is an established nation state. Imo, three countries have the necessary technical expertise to use influenza as a biological weapon: the United States, Russia and China. I will consider the evidence and likely motives of each of these countries in turn.
As noted above, the United States has already been accused of acquiring H5N1 samples to use as a biological weapon by the Indonesian Minister of Health. As near as I can tell, she has presented no evidence to support this claim other than the statement by the Director General of the World Health Organisation, Dr. Margaret Chan, that a traitor within the WHO had sent Indonesian samples to the US for use in biological weapons. Dr. Chan has neither confirmed nor denied this statement. Although the US has the technical ability to use influenza as biological weapon, I believe it is unlikely to do so for the following reasons:
1. The US is the world’s only hyper-power. If the US wants to conquer a country, it can do so with conventional weapons or, if necessary, nuclear weapons.
2. The American people are natural isolationists and have no stomach for empire, even if a particular administration did. Wars must be sold to the American people on the basis of self-defense. They would never agree to the use of biological weapon as an offensive weapon.
3. Given that the US is a free country, it would be very difficult for the government to hide such a program. Although many Americans will agree to keep secrets that they consider lawful, very few would agree to a program of deliberate genocide. I personally have never known an American scientist who would even consider such a possibility. Given that the scientific community is quite small, it seems unlikely that such a morally offensive program could be kept quiet.
Russia, in the form of its imperial precursor, the Soviet Union, has a long and extensive background in the development of biological weapons for offensive purposes (Wikipedia). They certainly have the technical expertise to develop influenza as a strategic weapon. Given this country’s recent past as the head of a totalitarian empire and some troubling signals of a slow backslide into an authoritarian regime, it is reasonable to ask if the Russian government has any motivation to launch an attack with manipulated influenza. Imo, the answer is no. Russia is a weak country with abundant natural resources (US Library of Congress). Although I don’t doubt that Putin dreams of Russian military greatness, disrupting the current ecomomic system will not help him achieve this goal. The petroleum and natural gas reserves he controls are generating large amounts of cash with which he can rebuild the Russian military. So, although Russia may prove a threat in the future, Putin is heavily dependent on the stability of the current world economic system to acheive his long-term goals. A high CFR pandemic flu would leave Russia with no market for its most valuable assets. And, given Russia’s own natural resources (and declining population), they have no motive to try to take anyone else’s.
Finally, we consider China. At first glance, the Chinese government would seem also to be heavily invested in the current economic system. After all, China has gotten very rich from globalisation. However, there are signs that this system of enrichment may be coming to an end. With rising oil prices, transportation of goods from China to the West is becoming increasingly expensive (Econbrowser). Already, some manufacturers are bringing their factories back to the countries where the goods will be sold (YaleGlobal Online). This trend will only increase in the future. At the same time, rising inflation within China is making basic necessities increasingly expensive to the average citizen (NYT). The head-long rush into industrialisation has resulted in the destruction of much of China’s farmland (BBC). China can scarcely afford this as their population continues to expand despite draconian government atttempts at population reduction (Time). Finally, although some Chinese citizens have seen significant improvements in their standard of living, many have not. This has led to peasant revolts in the countryside which are becoming increasingly frightening to Communist Party officials (The Australian, IHT ). Above all things, they fear the fate of the Ceausescus (BBC).
How would the Chinese government benefit from a pandemic that appeared to be natural but which was actually engineered by them? First, they could decide who within their own country would be spared and who would die. Troublesome minorities and peasants could be removed while Han Chinese in urban areas might be spared through vaccine and through stockpiles of food and fuel. On a global level, the West would be on its knees and Africa would be decimated. The depopulation of Africa, in particular, might be considered a desirable outcome given that China desperately needs the resources to be found there (BBC). The Middle East would also likely be depopulated and its resources easy pickings for a resurgent China.
Some would say that no government would consider such an evil course of action. To those I say, remember the past and pay attention to the present. The Chinese government is actively facilitating genocide in Darfur (NYT). They are strong supporters of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe (Zimbabwe Independent). The message is clear for any who wish to read it: the Chinese government wants Africans dead so that they can take their resources. The Chinese military, especially its Navy, is being prepared for Empire building, not an attack on Taiwan (The Atlantic, The Economist). The Chinese people are being indoctrinated with an intolerant, virulent Nationalism with strong racialist components (CFR , The China Expat , NYT). We have seen these signs before. We should know what they mean.
It is one thing to speculate about what China’s government is thinking. It is another to prove it. Let’s consider the facts. Hypervirulent H5N1 developed in China. It is the most lethal influenza in known history – at least 30 times more lethal than the 1918 flu which nearly destroyed civilisation at that time. H5N1 has infected more species of animals than any other other flu virus has ever done. The Chinese government covered up the initial cases of H5N1 in China (Business Week). They attempted to cover up a large outbreak in Qinghai, which brought H5N1 to Europe and Africa (Shanghia Expat, TIME). Two of the reported cases of H5N1 in China were members of the People’s Republic Army. One of them, Shi the soldier, is an especially interesting case. There is evidence that the Chinese government, especially the military, suppressed reports of Shi’s deaths for years (NYT). Further, when a paper was submitted to describe this case, someone attempted to fraudulently withdraw it after it had been accepted (NYT). Finally, the sequences of Shi the soldier themselves suggest that he was infected with a reassorted virus and the origin of one of the genes is currently unknown (this will be subject of a future technical report). There have also been unconfirmed reports of large outbreaks of H5N1 in China that were violently suppressed by the PLA under the cover of BioWarfare “training” (Shanghia Expat, Recombinomics). Finally, the Chinese government expended considerable political capital to install their candidate, Dr. Margaret Chan, as Director-General of the WHO, the agency that is charge of the world’s response to a pandemic (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, PRC). And, to bring us full circle, Dr. Chan has alleged to have said that
…a “criminal in the WHO” who sent samples or data to the US government’s secretive research laboratory at Los Alamos, New Mexico, was “terminated”.
To this day, she has not denied making this statement. If the Chinese government was concerned that their role in creating a pandemic strain would be revealed, what better way to deflect blame than to use their puppet at the WHO to, behind closed doors, accuse the US of the very crime it had committed. After all, everyone trusts the WHO, right?
Oh, and one more thing. For those who are tempted to dismiss this post as a fanciful conspiracy theory, ask a flu virologist where the 1977 H1N1 epidemic came from.
Many virologists now believe that it was literally just that: an influenza virus from the 1950’s, stored in a laboratory freezer at a research facility in China, somehow got released into the environment in 1977.
The New York Times
There’s an old saying: “Where there is smoke, there is fire.” This isn’t always true. Sometimes, there’s just smoke. But sometimes there really is fire. I can’t prove that the Chinese government has engineered or plans to engineer a pandemic, but I think this possibility should be considered more seriously than it has been.
There is smoke in China.