Home inFocus Defense: Rising Challenges and Changing Strategies (Fall 2020) COVID-19: China’s Lies and Lessons for the Pentagon

COVID-19: China’s Lies and Lessons for the Pentagon

Shoshana Bryen and Stephen Bryen Fall 2020

The idea of biological warfare has been with us over the centuries. You can start with bits of Thucydides’ vividly ugly description of the Plague of Athens in 430 BCE:

Strong fevers in the head and a burning redness in the eyes of those who had previously been healthy, and for no apparent reason… breathing took on a foul and unpleasant smell… pain descended to the chest…settled into stomach and caused it to release secretions of bile…tiny blisters and ulcers…unquenchable thirst…progressed to the intestines…attacked the genitals…

Mycotoxins, biological agents that can occur in nature from rotting or spoiled food or grain, would produce that sort of horrible death. Thucydides briefly considered the possibility that the enemies of Athens mixed toxin-laden grain in shipments to the city. 

Over centuries, armies have thrown dead infected animals over castle walls. Japan dropped bio-bombs in World War II, and Saddam planned to do it to Israel. “Yellow Rain” was spread in Cambodia, Laos and Afghanistan by plane, artillery shell, booby-traps, and handheld weapons. Anthrax was sent through the mail.

The Bad Guys

The U.N.-backed Biological Weapons Convention, entered into force in 1975, currently has 109 signatories. This convention, as cited by the Arms Control Association, bans the development, stockpiling, acquisition, retention, and production of biological agents and toxins “of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective, or other peaceful purposes,” as well as weapons, equipment, and delivery vehicles “designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict,” and “the transfer of or assistance with acquiring the agents, toxins, weapons, equipment, and delivery vehicles.”

Unfortunately, the convention has no inspection or enforcement mechanisms, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative that tracks weapons of mass destruction. It is widely believed that many states are conducting bio-weapons research and development in secret, including Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. Russia is a treaty signatory but even after Moscow ratified the treaty the Federation of American Scientists reported that Russia supported through an organization called Biopreparat 18 research centers working on pathogenic bio-weapons. 

On Sept. 16, 2019 in Novosibirsk, Russia, a gas canister exploded at a reinforced concrete laboratory called the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology. The lab, formerly the Vector Facility, is an old Soviet bio-weapons lab that now allegedly researches (and houses) Ebola, smallpox, and anthrax. Although Russia claims this facility is engaged in bio-defense research, all of the facilities can be used in bio-warfare. 

Iraq under Saddam created both anthrax and smallpox among other bio-agents. U.N. inspection reports produced between October 1995 and October 1997 noted that Iraq started researching anthrax warfare in 1985, at its Muthana chemical weapons center, and large-scale fermenters were used to produce anthrax spores in bulk at a pilot plant, Al Salman, after field trials on monkeys and sheep.

In its 1999 final report to the U.N. Security Council, United Nations Special Commission for Iraqi compliance (UNSCOM) called Iraq’s biological warfare program “among the most secretive of its programs of weapons of mass destruction.” It said that Iraq “took active steps” to conceal the program, including “inadequate disclosures, unilateral destruction, and concealment activities.”

According to Paul Rogers, professor of peace studies at Bradford University in the United Kingdom, drawing on UNSCOM’s reports, Iraq possessed an estimated 50 anthrax-filled bombs ready for use at the time of the First Gulf War. Saddam also had prepared 10 missiles dispersed to separate locations, loaded with anthrax warheads. “The assessment was that the Iraqis were likely to use weapons of mass destruction if the survival of the regime was threatened.” Aircraft were readied with special tanks that could be filled with liquid anthrax and other biological agents during the Second Gulf War. The United States destroyed these aircraft in bombing raids. 

Iran got significant help from both China and Russia for its chemical and biological weapons programs, although Iran also is a signatory to the Biological Warfare Convention. As reported by Alan Goldsmith, a former congressional staff expert, “Iranian military controlled facilities, Imam Hossein University (IHU) and Malek Ashtar University (MAU), have researched incapacitating chemical agents.” Published Iranian articles (for example by Peter Books at the Heritage Foundation) have cited weaponizing applications of pharmaceutical-based agents (PBAs), including the powerful opioid fentanyl. The report added that “IHU’s chemistry department had sought kilograms of medetomidine – an incapacitating sedative it has researched – from Chinese sellers.” 

North Korea has an aggressive biological and chemical warfare program, according to the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, and is reported to have worked on plague, anthrax, viral hemorrhagic fevers, and smallpox among other bio-war agents, and has recruited foreign technicians to help it advance its program. Andrew C. Weber, a Pentagon official in charge of nuclear proliferation, said that North Korea is far more likely to use biological weapons than nuclear weapons. “The program is advanced, underestimated and highly lethal,” he told The New York Times. 

China probably has the most advanced bio-warfare program in the world. As noted by the US-China Economic and Security Commission in its 2006 Report to Congress, two facilities in China have links to China’s offensive biological weapons program: the Chinese Ministry of Defense’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences (AMMS) Institute of Microbiology and Epidemiology (IME) in Beijing, and the Lanzhou Institute of Biological Products (LIBP). 

In addition to these two central laboratories, it is estimated that there are at least 50 other laboratories and hospitals being used as biological weapons research facilities. The head of the AMMS has now been put in charge of the Wuhan Virology Laboratory. Chen Wei, a major general of the People’s Liberation Army, was flown into Wuhan by the central government before officially taking the helm of Wuhan Institute of Virology. She was given responsibility to clean up the mess in Wuhan during the COVID-19 pandemic and specifically at the laboratory. 

China is also advanced in what is called CRISPR-Cas9 technology which the Index Project says is “a unique technology that enables geneticist and medical researchers to edit parts of the genome by removing, adding, or altering sections of DNA sequence.” American officials now see CRISPR gene editing as a serious threat to national security. As National Defense Magazine reports, it can lead to precisely targeted bio-weapons that might attack a single racial or ethnic group or could be used in combination with vaccines to carry out a bio-warfare operation while protecting its own forces. China is collaborating with many of the world’s leading virologists and geneticists under the cover of peaceful research on viruses and vaccines, no doubt feeding its bio war program. 

There is no consensus on the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Chinese government insists the virus originated in part from horseshoe bats and became zoonotic, that is, it jumped from bats to humans with some intermediate stop. There is also suspicion that laboratories in Wuhan, and perhaps elsewhere, that were engaged in advanced coronavirus research, were the source. And there exists the possibility of actual biological weapons research. 

What We Know

Some things are clear about the coronavirus pandemic. 

The outbreak was hidden by the Chinese government for months and information from doctors and nurses was suppressed. In some cases, experts simply disappeared. In one of the most important early cases, Li Wenliang, a doctor who was severely reprimanded for criticizing the government, was pronounced dead from coronavirus even before he actually died. In other cases, false or misleading information was aired, including by the World Health Organization (WHO) at the behest of the Chinese government.

To complicate matters further, in November 2018, a scientist from Wuhan was detained in Detroit with what the Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate of the FBI later reported “may be viable Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) materials.” A related investigation was carried out late last year in Canada involving a Winnipeg Bio-Level 4 lab, does research with the deadliest pathogens, and a researcher who made multiple visits to Wuhan doing “third party funded” work in Chinese labs. Canadian authorities deny any link to COVID-19.

But while there is no consensus on the origins of COVID-19, there is no doubt that it has been a bonanza for states and terrorists who now know a lot more about critical vulnerabilities of big powers including the United States and NATO, as well as Russia and China. These vulnerabilities include:

The spread of biological toxins, including viruses, can be extremely broad, even global.

Manufacturing and distribution systems can be significantly harmed.

First responder and hospital systems lack surge capacity and can be overwhelmed by a sudden pandemic.

There can be shortages or lack of surge capacity of medical supplies during pandemics, including simple facial masks and hand disinfectants as well as critical equipment such as ventilators and pharmacological supplies.

Military operations can be delayed, re-purposed, or simply halted. China, for example, has increased military operations in the South China Sea.

Economic activity can be severely reduced and markets in capitalist countries can be stressed and lose value at depression levels. As the Brookings Institution noted, the United States saw one of the sharpest economic contractions in its history in March, continuing through the second quarter of 2020.

Producing vaccines and effective treatments is time consuming and uncertain, with most projections assuming a year before vaccines are widely available. Moncef Slaoui, a former pharmaceutical executive the White House, chosen to lead a crash development program, acknowledged that the 12-18 month timeline cited by Dr. Anthony Fauci of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was already “very aggressive.” 

Response measures can, over weeks, “flatten the curve” of infection to avoid overwhelming medical facilities but may not stop the spread of novel pathogens.

An irresponsible press and media can spread unrest and panic, undermining trust in a government’s ability to cope with a bio-war crisis.

Hostile states can use deception to hide responsibility while at the same time seeking significant political, economic and military advantages in the midst of a crisis.

Strategies for the Future

While many experts focused on the coronavirus lockdowns and their liftings, less attention has been given to the degradation of the U.S. military and weakening of America’s strategic deterrence, especially in East Asia. Moreover, concomitant with a loss of deterrence is a rise in the risk of general war. There are two keys to preparing for a future biological disaster: a strategy that keeps the military and critical industries operating, and providing far better intelligence on “bad” actors, especially Russia and China. Both the strategy and intelligence need massive improvement.

Neither the U.S. Navy nor the Pentagon were prepared for a pandemic and their decisions resulted in the withdrawal of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt from the region. In early March 2020, the Navy persisted in “normal” port calls to areas with rising coronavirus infection rates – the Roosevelt went to Vietnam and the crew was on the ground for five days. Ships were then “quarantined” at sea for 14 days. The Navy had to know by then that the quarantine of cruise ship passengers and crew together at sea meant the virus would spread widely among those on board. At the same time, while the Pentagon cancelled all travel, military exercises, and deployments, it did not countermand the Navy decision to “quarantine” 5,000 people together. 

China took advantage of the absence of the Roosevelt by stepping up operations in the South China Sea and there is a risk that Chinese military leaders may push for action against more significant targets, including Taiwan. 

The Pentagon and military services must find a better way to secure effective fighting forces under pandemic conditions. Part of the answer would seem to be in prepositioning testing kits, protective masks, and decontamination equipment in safe zones located on or near important U.S. military bases. Clearly the Pentagon has been scrambling for answers, including having many of its personnel telework (although DOD has come nowhere near solving the security issues). The situation for troops, including sailors, abroad should be a top priority.

A similar strategy is needed for critical industries. If specialized plants reduce output, or cease working altogether, the damage to our capabilities could be enormous. A civil strategy to keep businesses, including small businesses, operating could significantly reduce the need for lockdown or quarantine measures.

During the 1991 Gulf War and 2003 Iraq War, Israel set an important civil defense example by providing kits to all its citizens that included gas masks and antibiotics to be used in case of a biological attack. The distribution of kits ended in 2014, but Israel stands as an excellent example of what the United States and other nations could do to protect against pandemics caused by viruses. A properly designed kit for every citizen (Israel had baby kits and kits adjusting for men with long beards) would go a long way to protect lives and keep the country working, meaning that lockdowns and other measures could be confined to hot spot locations and only when absolutely needed.

Kits might include high quality face masks, synthetic rubber gloves, and most importantly, general purpose antiviral compounds. The last is not yet available but their development would help reduce fear in the public, stop hoarding practices that harm social trust, and keep transportation systems operating. It also would reduce pressure on doctors, nurses, and hospitals. 

Another critical need is vastly improved intelligence, so that dangers can be avoided or mitigated. A great deal is known about China’s biological research operations because of extensive contacts and cooperation between Chinese and foreign scientists, and projects shared between Chinese, American, French, Australian and other laboratories. For a brief three years (2014-17) the U.S. Government recognized the risk in certain types of viral research and urged Chinese, U.S. and other scientists to stop doing it, going so far as to halt funding from the National Institute of Health (NIH) and other organizations. As the journal Science reported, this included “all federal funding for so-called gain-of-function (GOF) studies that alter a pathogen to make it more transmissible or deadly so that experts can work out a U.S. government-wide policy for weighing the risks.” Federal officials are also asking the handful of researchers doing ongoing work in this area to agree to a voluntary moratorium.”

But in 2017, the ban was dropped. No system was worked out as promised in 2014. While no public explanation has been given, it seems that the MIH felt the ban was impeding work on virus vaccines. 

After 2017, the U.S. scientific establishment returned to business as usual,  cooperating with China on biological research with no strategic assessment of the risks involved, although there were warnings. The FBI was concerned about biological agents, including SARs viruses, being moved in and out of the United States, and U.S. Customs seized some of this material. Likewise, the CIA evidenced serious concern about certain biological warfare dangers, particularly from terrorists. U.S. intelligence may have offered guesses as to biological weapons-related research by China, but likely had no hard evidence about this program.

Specific Steps 

The United States needs a broad range of specific changes and/or improvements in the management of pro-active bio-warfare responses and maintenance of the U.S. deterrent abroad. These should include:

1. Suspend U.S.-sponsored biological research with China for Class A Bioterrorism Agents, which are defined as “organisms that pose a risk to national security.” Such agents can easily be disseminated or transmitted from person to person; can result in high mortality rates; have the potential for major public health impact; might cause public panic and social disruption; and could require special action for public health preparedness.

2. Expand the CDC Class A Bioterrorism Agents and Diseases list to include all coronavirus types without exception including coronavirus variants, mutations, and experimentation in zoonotic transfer of virus agents, variations and mutations.

3. Strongly urge American scientists not to cooperate in any Class A Bioterrorism Agent research with Chinese counterparts by withholding U.S. government funding.

4. Cancel visas to Chinese researchers who are in the United States or coming to America to work on Class A Bioterrorism Agents.

5. Require compensation from China for the coronavirus epidemic and use the International Court of Justice to bring a case against China.

6. Ask the WHO or an independent inspection of China’s virology laboratories.

7. Demand that Taiwan be included in WHO, at least as an observer, as a condition of any future U.S. funding of the organization. As an alternative, Washington should consider a “democracies group” of international health organization that includes Taiwan.

8. Strengthen U.S. defenses in the Pacific including on Guam, Japan, and Okinawa. Instead of withdrawing U.S. bomber forces from Guam, the White House should bolster the force there and add air defenses to protect both the airfields and the harbor used by the U.S. Navy.

9. Consider basing sophisticated air defense systems on Taiwan (perhaps using Israel’s Arrow III system, which is available now) run by the United States and partnered with Taiwan.

10. Demand that Japan move quickly to strengthen its air defense systems, especially around ports and harbors and to restore the recently cancelled missile defense sites in Akita Prefecture, planned to host two AEGIS Ashore missile defense bases capable of operating Standard Missile 3 Block IIA interceptor missiles as well as Standard Missile 6 interceptors. 


As the world emerges from pandemic, major flaws in the “Chinese model” have appeared: numerous countries have junked defective coronavirus test kits from China, while others have recalled tens of thousands of defective Chinese-origin N-95 face masks. Countries in China’s Belt and Road Initiative are complaining about the heavy economic burden of mandatory Chinese “loans.” If China is not reaping the benefits it sought to claim during the early confusion of the West, an opportunity for the United States to reassert leadership may appear. The country must be ready to step up.

Stephen D. Bryen, Ph.D., is a former senior DoD official. Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of the Jewish Policy Center and Editor of inFOCUS Quarterly. A version of this article appeared in Defending Against Bio-Threats by The Center for Security Policy.