The Corner

National Security & Defense

This Wasn’t Bioterrorism . . . but the Next Virus Could Be Deliberate

A scientist works in a lab researching coronavirus antibodies for in Beijing, China, March 30, 2020. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Back on March 18, I wrote, “Someone already launched a denial-of-service attack on the networks of the Department of Health and Human Services and the FBI is investigating. If nothing else, America’s enemies are studying how we are responding to this particular virus and keeping it in mind for how we would respond to an attack with a biological weapon.”

Today:

The Pentagon and the intelligence community are more forcefully investigating the possibility that adversaries could use the novel coronavirus as a bioweapon, according to defense and intelligence officials, in a shift that reflects the national security apparatus’ evolving understanding of the virus and its risks.

Meanwhile, the intelligence community has also begun gaming out the potential for bad actors to weaponize the virus, particularly against high-level targets, and the Defense Department has recently shifted its focus toward monitoring the possibility more closely, said three people familiar with the matter.

(No, this does not mean that the Pentagon or U.S. intelligence believe SARS-CoV-2 is a deliberately-engineered bioweapon or that it was deliberately released. These discussions are about future use of viruses as weapons.)

If you asked me what worries me today — and what is likely to end up in some future novel — it is that the world’s experience with SARS-CoV-2 is showing the effectiveness of bioweapons in the way that 9/11 demonstrated the effectiveness of terrorism and asymmetrical warfare. Who needs tanks and planes anymore when you can cripple a foreign rival by releasing some virus into its population?

Of course, bioweapons are particularly dangerous, and the world’s experience with this virus is making the risks of bioweapons vivid and unmistakable. Once a virus is released, it doesn’t follow orders, and a virus rarely stays on the side of the border that a government wants. Even if a regime was certain that its responsibility for unleashing a virus would never be discovered, they would run a considerable risk of a virus spreading into its own society and inflicting damage comparable to the target country.

So that creates something of a deterrent factor in the use of bioweapons, along with the U.S. policymakers’ past veiled suggestions that they would respond to the use of weapons of mass destruction against Americans with our own weapons of mass destruction, meaning nuclear weapons.

But the bad news is that the world has its share of lunatics who don’t worry about those kinds of consequences. In 1984, the followers of  cult leader Baghwan Shree Rajneesh put salmonella in salad bars in restaurants in Oregon. The Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo unleashed sarin on the subway system of Tokyo in 1995.

If you really want to get nervous, back in the 1990s, there was concern that the Aum Shinrikyo cult had managed to obtain or build some sort of nuclear weapon and test-detonated it in a remote location in the Australian outback.

LATE on the evening of May 28, 1993, something shattered the calm of the Australian outback and radiated shock waves outward across hundreds of miles of scrub and desert. Around the same time, truck drivers crossing the region and gold prospectors camping nearby saw the dark sky illuminated by bright flashes, and they and other people heard the distant rumble of loud explosions.

Investigators discovered that the cult, Aum Shinrikyo, had tried to buy Russian nuclear warheads and had set up an advanced laboratory on a 500,000-acre ranch in Australia near the puzzling upheaval. At the ranch, investigators found that the sect had been mining uranium, a main material for making atomic bombs.

Eventually, investigators and scientists concluded that the event was natural, not manmade, and most likely a meteorite. However, the impact crater was never found.

About a half-dozen countries are believed to still have some sort of secret research into or development of biological weapons.

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