Bio weapons and transparency

UN Secretary-General António Guterres will not tire of appealing for international solidarity and Cooperation; recently again on the occasion of the “International Day of multilateralism and diplomacy for peace” of 24 April 2020: “the Covid-19 pandemic is a tragic reminder of how deeply we are connected. The Virus knows no boundaries and is a fundamental global challenge. To fight it, we must work together as a human family.”

No “human family”

It does not look like a “human family” at the moment, despite or perhaps because of the corona crisis. “While individual states are trying to bring the Covid-19 crisis under control in their own countries, international responsibility and solidarity are suffering, “writes the” Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik " in Berlin, Europe’s largest Think-Tank in the field of international politics. “For example, reception procedures for refugees are stopped. The international order is changing, and new geopolitical constellations. Although the long-term social, political and economic consequences are difficult to foresee, it is already clear that they will be serious”.

Mutual Recriminations

In fact, instead of facing the global health crisis in a spirit of cooperation, mutual blame does not diminish. The US and China, for example, accuse each other of being responsible for the outbreak. China has also already spread the – slightly transparent-thesis that the Virus originated in an American laboratory and was introduced to China. Above all, however, China is repeatedly confronted with the suspicion that the Virus has escaped from a Chinese laboratory. Accidental release from a laboratory cannot be completely ruled out. There have been incidents of this kind in various places around the world, but so far they have not caused any major waves of infection.

China walls

However, according to various studies, the corona pandemic appears to be of natural origin and would not have escaped from a laboratory. It is all the more irritating that China is consistently walling on this point. “If China is certain that it has done nothing wrong, it should actually be able to face an international investigation calmly,” writes the NZZ on 14 May 2020. without Chinese cooperation, it is never possible to fully explain how the Virus found its way to humans. “But Beijing reacts dismissively to hostile. It insults every country that makes the demand for close investigation, and categorically denies any cooperation.”

Accusations of the secret services

Little is it surprising that the escalation spiral continues. Western intelligence services are now making serious allegations against China in connection with the Corona crisis. However, several other States operate non-transparent. Individual experts are now calling for the intelligence services to play a key role now and in future pandemics, as radio SRF reported in Echo der Zeit. Governments are under intense pressure for various reasons, and the international situation is thus destabilized. China, for example, may be prone to more “adventurism.” Therefore, it is the task of the secret services to obtain information in good time, in which direction various states are moving, is the argument.

China appears strikingly brisk

It is not to be denied that Beijing’s attitude has recently hardened strikingly. “Since the outbreak of the pandemic, China has not behaved more cautiously, but more aggressively in the South China Sea,” said Karin Wenger, radio SRF’s Southeast Asia correspondent in the broadcast Rendez-vous of 12 May 2020. two researchers from the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich also come to similar conclusions on the same day. In the Asia-Pacific region, a Chinese and an American-dominated model of order has been clashing for some time. “A confrontational downward spiral driven by both sides has taken the place of a precarious balancing act for the benefit of the global economy. The corona crisis has exacerbated this trend,” the scientists write in the NZZ.

Dangerous Speculation

Existing conflicts can therefore be intensified by the corona crisis. Given the already delicate situation and the nervousness of governments, mutual reproaches from states and speculation surrounding the outbreak and character of the corona pandemic are counterproductive and dangerous. Especially when the accusations are insinuating or openly heading in the direction of biological warfare. Rumours are circulating that China is secretly manufacturing biological weapons in Wuhan. Such views are mainly expressed in conspiracy-theoretical echo chambers. But there is also at least one official state agency that has portrayed the pandemic as an American bioweapon operation: the Iranian Revolutionary leader Khamenei.

Danger of a biological arms race

Such suspicions can “exacerbate crises in the already tense world political situation,” writes una Jakob, specialist for Biological and chemical weapons at the hessian foundation for peace and Conflict Research (Prif), one of the leading peace research institutes in Europe. Una Jakob makes it unmistakably clear: the Corona Virus is not a bioweapon. If such suspicions spread, it could " promote a biological arms race in the long term, if bioweapon capacities were falsely assumed to be offensive, with the expansion of own defensive capacities.”

Corona Virus " no suitable bioweapon"

Una Jakob argues on two levels. One level is the lack of suitability of the Corona Virus for military purposes, the other is the political and international legal framework. SARS-CoV-2 is “not a suitable bioweapon. Biological warfare agents have traditionally been those that are either not transmissible from person to person (such as anthrax, castor or botulinum toxin) or against which there are possibilities of self-protection such as vaccinations or tried-and-tested drugs (such as plague, smallpox or tularemia). This is the only way that attackers can ensure that their own troops and populations are not harmed as much as those of their opponents.“For state actors, it would therefore be contrary to any logic to deliberately release SARS-CoV-2. And non – state actors – i.e. terrorists-would have to overcome immense technological hurdles to manipulate a previously unknown pathogen in such a way that it exhibits the characteristics of SARS-CoV-2.

“Extremely strong taboos”

At the second level of political and international law, una Jakob is based on the bioweapon convention (BWC), which entered into force in 1975. Biological warfare and the possession of biological weapons are “extremely strong taboos”. The treaty prohibits its 183 members without exception from the production, possession and transfer of biological weapons and commits them to the disarmament of existing arsenals. However, the contract has a crucial weak point: it contains “no means to verify its compliance, and the transparency measures that should increase confidence in the loyalty of the members are also too weak.”

20 states once conducted research on bioweapons

About 20 states are known or suspected to have once conducted research on bioweapons. Most ended their activities before the conclusion of the BWC in 1972; the other confirmed programmes in South Africa and Iraq have since been discontinued. Today, an offensive program is still suspected in North Korea. According to some sources, una Jakob writes, “moreover, in Egypt, China, Israel, Russia and Syria, it is not possible to say with certainty whether the known or assumed earlier efforts for Biological Weapons have been completely stopped. However, no state openly commits itself to corresponding activities, and bioweapons no longer have a place in the military doctrines of the vast majority of states. Their use is prohibited worldwide and without restriction under international law.”

BTWC, with the delicate gaps

According to Wikipedia, the US has been researching “non-lethal” weapons since 2002, including material-destroying microbes, which does not explicitly violate the bioweapon convention, as it has not yet addressed the problem of “non-lethal” biochemical weapons. And this is where the problems begin: the BTWC has gaps, the further development of the agreement has been blocked for years, and transparency and consultation procedures are also considered to be in need of reform. “In order to remove false accusations such as the current one concerning SARS-CoV-2 from the ground and to eliminate uncertainties, the states parties would have to bring more transparency into their (permitted) bioweapon research, including military research,” una Jakob notes. Next year, at the 8th Review Conference of the BTWC, the opportunity arises. Whether it is used is questionable.