• The WTF Files

Defense Expert Investigates Whether the Covid-19 Virus Would Make a Good Bioweapon

Chinese authorities allowed reporters into the Wuhan Institute of Virology laboratory last week in a belated attempt to disprove conspiracy theories that the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes Covid-19, originated in the lab. However, such openness, months after the pandemic has spread across the globe may do little to allay the conspiracy theories that the release was a deliberate act of bioterrorism by China.

Whether or not someone believes these conspiracy theories, it is instructive to consider whether the SARS-CoV-2 virus would make a so-called “good” biological weapon. Many countries around the world (including the United States, Iraq, former Soviet Union, United Kingdom, Japan, and Canada) used to have biological weapons programs, and some others (China, North Korea, and Iran) are suspected of continuing to develop biological weapons.

Biological warfare involves the use infectious pathogens or toxins from living organisms to cause death or disability in humans, animals, or plants. Deployment of a weapon can range from something as simple as contaminating an adversary’s water source with feces or a dead carcass, to spraying a highly sophisticated engineered pathogen across a battlefield. Although we often consider humans as the targets, bioweapons can also be employed with devastating economic effects on animals or plants. Just imagine the potential impact from wiping out an adversary’s pig production or wheat fields on its ability to feed its army.

Today, I will focus solely on bioweapon use against humans. Although there are thousands of pathogens that infect humans, there are only a few that make the cut as “good” weapons. The CDC categorizes the highest threat agents for bioterrorism as “Category A.” Diseases in this category have the ability to exact a large public health toll, thus requiring an investment in response measures.

Many of the names on the list are readily recognizable for the human suffering they have caused over centuries: anthrax, botulism, plague, smallpox, tularemia, and viral hemorrhagic fevers (including Ebola and Marburg viruses).

Some of the agents listed above share certain properties that state-funded programs considered “desirable” for use as a weapon. Soviet scientists even had a scoring system for These properties.

Here’s what those properties are, and how SARS-CoV-2 lines up within them.

Easy To Access: Except for smallpox, which has been eradicated and is now locked up in freezers at the CDC in Atlanta and in Russia, all of the category A threats are relatively easy to get ahold of. This is certainly the case for SARS-CoV-2, currently readily available across the world.

Easy To Manufacture: Most category A agents can be manufactured in large quantities so they can be sprayed over a battlefield or large population. Making biological weapons requires either fermentation technology (similar to what’s used to make beer) or production in cell culture. Viruses like SARS-CoV-2 are harder to grow than bacteria (like anthrax spores), but it can be done.

Stable In The Atmosphere: This is a key property for a bioweapon in order for it to be used on a battlefield or against a large population (though not as important for smaller attacks or assassination attempts). SARS-CoV-2 fails when it comes to this criterion. Although it appears to spread very efficiently in indoor environments, it does not appear to survive well outdoors, especially in sunlight.

Only A Small Number Is Needed To Spread Widely: If a small number of viruses, bacteria or fungi are needed to infect a single person and therefore cause a widespread infection, that’s ideal for making a weapon that can cover a larger area. Right now, the jury is still out on how many organisms are needed to infect with SARS-CoV-2, so it’s not clear how it lines up.

A High Percentage Of Infected People Become Ill: One key aspect of any weapon is predictability. If only a few people who are infected become ill, the effect of the pathogen is not reliable enough to base military response plans on it. SARS-CoV-2 virus doesn’t fare well on this property. A high percentage, up to 40% or so, appear to have asymptomatic infection. In addition, individuals aged 18-24, which make up a large proportion of the military population, may only be mildly affected. That means, an army couldn’t spray the opposing forces on a hilltop with the SARS-CoV-2 virus and expect them to get sick enough to allow for an easy attack.

Users Of The Bioweapon Can Be Protected: Use of biological weapons can be unpredictable. If one is released in the air and the wind blows in the wrong direction, one’s own forces could be infected. Hence the need to have a vaccine or treatment to protect your forces. Currently we have no “magic bullet” for COVID-19 and no vaccine. Although Russia announced recently that it has a vaccine, whether it actually protects against infection is another story. Many other vaccine candidates are currently at various stages of human testing around the world.

The Threat Of Use Can Cause Panic: This can be effective if the intent is to cause havoc from the threat alone. Certainly, we have seen the devastating social impact that has occurred as a result of SARS-CoV-2, as people fear getting infected in the workplace, schools, or in other community areas, so it gets a plus for this property.

It Is Contagious: This property can be a double-edged sword. Once released, a bioweapon can be the “gift that keeps on giving” as it spreads efficiently through the opposing army or nation. It also means the pathogen can spread back to the country that released it if it doesn’t have a countermeasure. We have witnessed this challenge firsthand with SARS-CoV-2, and how difficult it has been to contain once it gets into a population.

Overall: The SARS-CoV-2 virus has some “desirable” properties as a bioweapon, but probably not enough to make it a good choice for military purposes. Regardless, it has certainly reminded us of our vulnerabilities as a society to a new pathogen, and how crippling a pandemic can be, as we continue to watch the entire world grappling with how to contain it. I have no doubt that our adversaries have been taking notes on how challenging it has been for the US to respond effectively.

The other important thing this pandemic has demonstrated is that once the genie escapes the bottle, it is nearly impossible to put it back in. We lose control and the results are unpredictable. This is one reason the US got out of the bioweapon business when President Nixon shut down the weapons development program in 1969 and decided to focus solely on defensive measures.

It is only a matter of time until we face this type of challenge again – either from mother nature or an adversary. Now is the time to shore up the vulnerabilities in our preparedness and response that this pandemic has laid bare. Time is not on our side.

(Forbes) Mark Kortepeter

Infectious disease and public health physician, scientist, retired soldier, and author.