Suppose that the COVID-19 pandemic is not the Asian flu, but Pearl Harbor.
A number of conservative commentators have speculated that it might result from a biological attack to wipe out the U.S. economy. Of course, the left wing’s self-appointed “fact checkers,” including Al Jazeera, Vox, and Snopes, immediately rejected even considering this possibility as a “conspiracy theory.”
Their narrow argument for dismissing the possibility of a biological attack was that scientific examination of the virus’s genome shows that it was not manufactured in a laboratory but was naturally occurring, probably in bats. A moment’s reflection will show why this argument proves next to nothing: most of the agents used for biological warfare occur in nature, anthrax being an example.
But what is more important is the broader issue of the recent fashion to dismiss narratives with which one disagrees as “conspiracy theories.” This rhetorical technique licenses someone to dismiss disturbing ideas that conflict with their own view of the world without refuting them. Is it a good idea to dismiss other people’s visions of reality as conspiracy theories without taking them seriously enough to refute them with logic or evidence?
If properly understood as theories, not proven facts, conspiracy theories can aid us not only to understand the past, but more importantly, to predict the future.
Throughout history, some of what were once considered crazy “conspiracy theories” have had a funny way of becoming accepted as truth. The most famous example, of course, is Galileo. He insisted that the Earth moved around the sun when all educated and right-thinking people knew that the sun must rotate around the Earth because we had been created by God and therefore we had to be the center of the universe. For almost a thousand years, the Catholic Church defined a single truth and punished those who thought otherwise as “heretics.” That period is called “the dark ages” for a reason.
So what if the claims about COVID-19 and biological warfare are “conspiracy theories”? Does that mean we may reject them out of hand without investigation or analysis? A “conspiracy theory,” properly understood, is a hypothesis, not currently provable, about how or why something happened. That’s why we call them “theories,” not assertions of fact. A conspiracy theory is an attempt to “connect the dots” in a plausible way to make sense of something by forming available data into an understandable narrative. Trying to organize data into a coherent pattern to understand the past and to predict the future is how human brains work. According to neuroscientist Mark P. Mattson, “The fundamental function of the brains of all animals is to encode and integrate information acquired from the environment through sensory inputs, and then generate adaptive behavioral responses.”
Conspiracy theories, including the hypothesis that the coronavirus pandemic might result from biological warfare, are useful in forming adaptive responses and therefore should be taken seriously. If properly understood as theories, not proven facts, conspiracy theories can help us not only to understand the past but, more importantly, to predict the future.
Let’s be clear: I am not saying that the Chinese started the COVID-19 pandemic on purpose. That’s important, so I am going to say it again in big, bold print: I am not saying that the Chinese started the COVID-19 pandemic on purpose. What I am saying is that this hypothesis cannot be definitely confirmed or denied based on the data currently available to the public. The logical verdict at the present time is “not proven,” a third alternative that the Scots wisely give their juries, rather than “guilty” or “not guilty.”
Consequently, that possibility should be investigated further and either confirmed or ruled out, probably through a 9/11-style commission. Whether we were or were not attacked intentionally by our Chinese geopolitical rivals with a biological agent, or the pandemic merely results from their negligence in failing to control the spread of disease from animals in their wet markets for the third time, as Sen. Lindsey Graham maintains, does of course have implications for how we should deal with the Chinese in the future.
But a much more important implication from this particular conspiracy theory illustrates why some conspiracy theories should be taken seriously: the COVID-19 pandemic shows how unprepared we are to deal with a possible biological warfare attack in the future. Now that our vulnerability to the spread of this virus, whether naturally occurring or not, is apparent for all the world to see, our adversaries around the world will learn from this episode.
My late father-in-law, Bailey Brown, a combat naval officer in World War II, taught me that “the enemy is smart, too.” They will adapt to whatever strategy we employ. As a result of COVID-19, we are now much more likely to be subjected to biological warfare attacks in the future masquerading as COVID-21 or COVID-22.
In a deeper sense, whether or not this pandemic resulted from a conscious act of aggression or mere gross negligence in failing to control a dangerous biological agent, either at the Wuhan level 4 biological research facility, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, or at the Wuhan live animal market, is largely a detail of future historical interest. Historians may debate it for decades, like they debate whether or not Castro was behind the assassination of President Kennedy as retaliation for a CIA attempt on his own life, and whether or not Jefferson fathered illegitimate children with Sally Hemings.
The COVID-19 pandemic shows how unprepared we are to deal with a possible biological warfare attack in the future.
What is important for planning purposes is that we cannot definitively rule out the possibility of a biological attack, at least not based on the information available to the public. “It may have happened, it may not have happened: but it COULD have happened,” as Mark Twain put it in The Prince and the Pauper.
That’s what we should pay attention to for developing adaptive strategies: not just what did happen — which reflects the vagaries of a particular moment in time — but what could have happened. That’s the point of Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” In anticipating what can go wrong, conspiracy theories — particularly the high-quality ones that cannot be disproven — can be invaluable.
To illustrate the point, let’s approach the question of whether or not COVID-19 could have been a biological attack as a mystery novelist might, by looking at motive, means, and opportunity, as well as similar prior acts.
Motive. China has declared this the “Chinese century” and wants to show the world its superiority over its rivals.
What better way to do so than to launch a biological attack that would decimate the economy of its primary rival that dominated the previous century? While its rivals flounder to cope, China magnanimously offers airplane loads of humanitarian supplies to countries all over the world. Its scientists announce that they have developed an “extremely effective” modern treatment against the virus using monoclonal antibodies.
By contrast, scientists in other countries flail around vaccines (first invented in 1885) — that might become available a year from now, and might or might not work — and even less effective older techniques, such as quarantines, which trace back to the 14th century, and social distancing. Perhaps the Chinese even developed the “cure” before releasing the pathogen? Could it be their equivalent of the 1969 Apollo moon landing? Articles are already appearing proclaiming that the response to COVID-19 “proves” the superiority of the Chinese mode of government.
Plus there is the damage to the U.S. economy, which is much greater than the pain we imposed on China through Trump’s tariffs. Could this be their retaliation?
I have a friend who worked for the Department of Homeland Security. He explained to me a few years back why we all have to endure those long lines for TSA inspections and confiscation of our gels and liquids over 2.5 ounces at airports. “Imagine,” he said, “that Islamic terrorists were able to bring down a few planes over deep water in the Atlantic. We’d never know what caused the crashes, and we’d have to shut down air commerce with Europe. Can you imagine the impact that would have on our economy?” he asked rhetorically.
That imaginary horrible from a decade ago pales by comparison to the economic disruption caused by a pandemic, whether natural or caused by biological warfare. A simulation by Johns Hopkins predicted that the effect of a pandemic caused by a hypothetical virus could last over 18 months, kill 65 million people, reduce global GDP by 11 percent, and cause stock markets around the world to lose 20 to 40 percent of their value.
Means. To get away with it without retaliation, the source of an infectious agent must not be traceable back to an intentional act by the country launching the attack. What better way to achieve plausible deniability than by adapting a naturally occurring virus that is contagious to humans? One would then start a small epidemic in the home country and then spread disinformation minimizing the threat. For example, one might claim that it cannot spread from one human to another, as the Chinese originally claimed. When a few local doctors who aren’t in on the plan try to get the word out, they are squelched.
But what about the 3,362 COVID-19 deaths officially acknowledged by China (and perhaps 10 times more in reality)? A small price to pay, particularly for a country with over a billion people. Perhaps they died for their country, like the 4,000 U.S. soldiers who have died in our feckless wars in the Middle East.
Opportunity. How likely is it really that “emergence of the virus in the same city as China’s only level 4 biosafety lab … is pure coincidence”?
The poor man’s guide to how the universe works, The Celestine Prophecy, maintains “there are no coincidences,” just linkages between events that we don’t understand. We do know for sure that the level 4 biological laboratory in Wuhan placed ads for scientists to work on bat viruses before the epidemic began.
Perhaps the release of the bat virus was accidental, or occurred elsewhere, but is it really unthinkable — lacking evidence one way or the other — that the bat virus could have been released intentionally? Countries throughout history have used biological warfare against one another. The sorry details are here.
Prior Bad Acts. Under some circumstances, U.S. courts will consider evidence of similar prior bad acts, although such evidence is usually excluded on the grounds that it is too probative of guilt and therefore too prejudicial to be fair to the defendant.
If we consider evidence of prior actions that are similar, it is clear that our international adversaries, including China, are currently engaged in active chemical warfare against the United States. It goes by a different name, “drug trafficking,” but it is a form of chemical warfare nonetheless. In one year, 2018, the last year for which official data are available, 31,000 Americans died from overdoses of fentanyl, a highly addictive synthetic opioid 50 times more powerful than morphine, and other synthetic opioids, according to the CDC.
The Chinese are “the largest source of illicit fentanyl and fentanyl-like substances in the United States.” The fentanyl labs in China are “partially subsidized by the government,” according to press reports.
Some, such as the U.S.–China Business Council, shrug this off by claiming the Chinese fentanyl trade is due
in large part because local governments were prioritizing economic growth and development objectives “above all else,” in addition to “the fragmented nature of China’s administrative system that oversees the production and export of chemical and pharmaceutical products.”
Maybe. But suppose the explanation is less benign than mere greed and administrative incompetence; could this form of chemical warfare against the West be a conscious policy choice by the Chinese government? Payback for the Opium Wars perhaps?
To date, China has paid no price for its years of chemical assaults on the U.S.; we merely keep asking them politely to stop.
If they continue to attack us year after year with chemical warfare that kills over than 30,000 Americans a year and get away with it, why think they couldn’t possibly stoop to using biological in addition to chemical agents to weaken us? Particularly if they have plausible deniability because several other epidemics also started in their open wet markets, according to both Sen. Lindsey Graham and Dr. Anthony Fauci?
Remember, I am not saying the Chinese did in fact launch a biological warfare attack on us. I am merely claiming that those who insist that they did not are being as irrational as those whom they criticize as conspiracy theorists for claiming that maybe they did. At this point, both sides lack persuasive evidence to support their beliefs one way or the other. Both sides are merely reflecting their preconceptions about how the world works, a pervasive source of error called “confirmation bias.”
Adam Schiff recently called for a “non-partisan,” “9/11 style” commission to analyze the COVID-19 crisis. For once, he is right, although probably for the wrong reasons. A COVID-19 after-action commission should not be a cheap political stunt to try to show that Donald Trump “has blood on his hands” (in the words of NBC’s Meet the Press’s supposed “moderator,” Chuck Todd). A commission to learn the real lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic should be a serious one comprised of thoughtful people like those convened after JFK’s assassination or the 9/11 attacks. Like the 2008 Graham–Talent Commission, which predicted a biological attack on the U.S., a serious COVID-19 Commission should consider, among other things, the vulnerability of the U.S. to possible future biological attacks that has been exposed by this pandemic, however it was caused. The most important issue now is not what caused this one, but what can we do to prevent the next one, which could well be caused by a biological attack even if this one was not.