Germs in the Arsenal

Article by Elton Cornell

Coronavirus through a bioweapons lens.

Week after week early on, news about the coronavirus outbreak that began in Wuhan, China, in late 2019 kept getting worse. And with each passing day, the only thing we learned was how little we knew about it.

In places around the world, the number of infections and fatalities kept doubling. Every day brought another story of a city, region, or whole country on lockdown. As with any high-profile, high-drama story, misinformation spread wildly. And because so much of what we heard was contradictory, it was easy to become unsure about what material to trust. Paranoia seemed almost mandatory.

Initially we were told the virus was transmitted from animals to humans at an open-air “wet market” in Wuhan. Then we heard that China’s premier high-security bioweapons lab is only a few hundred yards from that wet market.

Chinese doctors suddenly appeared with dire warnings about the outbreak and then disappeared just as quickly, leaving the world wondering if they were permanently silenced by the virus or by authorities. Even though the World Health Organization early on declared this new strain of the virus to be a global health emergency, Chinese officials wouldn’t permit physicians from America’s Centers for Disease Control to enter the region and conduct independent tests.

Some Russian media outlets said the virus was an American-made bioweapon designed to cripple a Chinese economy that’s putting its United States counterpart to shame. Other outlets claimed Chinese military officials were making the same allegation.

Meanwhile, American radio host Rush Limbaugh said the virus is likely “a ChiCom laboratory experiment” being used as part of a grander Chinese scheme to destroy Donald Trump.

Others insisted Chinese scientists stole the virus from a Canadian lab, while some said it was part of a population-control plot hatched at a private British institute.

At the start, when the only casualties were Asian, there were rumors that the virus was engineered specifically to kill Asians.

It all sounds crazy, right? An engineered virus, not a tragic twist of nature?

Except it gets less wacky and paranoid when you consider that for centuries, governments, armies, and lone-wolf terrorists have deliberately infected people with deadly biological agents.

Did A Medieval Siege Launch the Black Death?

The earliest recorded occurrence of biological warfare comes in the Hittite texts of 1500-1200 B.C., which describe victims of tularemia — aka rabbit fever — being relocated into enemy territory to cause an epidemic. In the fourth century B.C., Scythian archers would dip arrowheads into animal feces to add infectious potential to their flesh-piercing points. Ancient Roman warriors were said to dip their swords into excrement and corpses, leaving victims both slashed and infected with tetanus.

In what may be history’s deadliest use of bioweapons, the outbreak of bubonic plague — the Black Death — that ravaged Europe in the mid-1300s may have started, some believe, during the 1346 siege of the Crimean city of Kaffa, when the plague-infected corpses of Mongol warriors were tossed over walls into the fortified town. It’s speculated that the inhabitants of Kaffa were then infected, leading to a continental domino effect that may have snuffed out as many as 25 million European lives.

The last known incident of an army attacking its enemy with plague-infected corpses occurred in 1710, when Russian aggressors tossed cadavers over the walls of Reval in Sweden.

In an era of "weaponized" everything, talking about germs almost seems anticlimatic. Yet history always provides insights if one is willing to listen closely.