Viewpoint: COVID-19 Mysteries Underscore Need for Better Biomedical Intel

By Robert J. Girod

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The coronavirus pandemic is a story which evolves every day, with new facts, statistics and revelations coming almost hourly.

Allegations of cover-up and undeclared importations have made intriguing nuances to this international crisis. Biological and medical intelligence is aimed at the collection, analysis and dissemination of intelligence data on biological and medical threats. This includes chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear issues that affect national security and homeland security detection, deterrence, response and mitigation.

U.S. intelligence, defense and law enforcement communities face tremendous challenges from weapons of mass destruction. The novel coronavirus may be one of these challenges. Declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, COVID-19 originated in China and is a cousin of the SARS virus. Coronaviruses are a large group of animal-borne viruses that can make people sick.

There are four types of biological agents or biological weapons: viruses, bacteria, plagues, and natural poisons or toxins that occur without modification. Modern WMD biological weapon types are either bacterial weapons or viral weapons, with microbes cultured and refined — weaponized — to increase their killing abilities.

Antibiotics may be effective against bacterial weapons, but bacterial weapons programs often create strains of microbes that are resistant to such drugs.

Antibiotics are usually not effective in treating viral weapons (viruses), although there may be vaccines that can be effective if administered before exposure to the viral agent.

Biological agents are difficult to control but relatively easy to produce.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists several threatening agents:

Anthrax is a spore-forming bacterium or bacterial disease affecting the skin and lungs.

Botulism has toxins which attack the nerves.

Hemorrhagic fever interferes with the blood’s ability to clot.

Smallpox is an infectious disease caused by one of two virus variants; there is no treatment or cure, but a vaccine can prevent it.

Plague is an infection of the lungs caused by a bacteria and can be spread by infected fleas.

Tularemia is an infection that attacks the skin, eyes, lymph nodes and lungs.

Glanders, a zoonotic disease caused by a bacterial infections occurring in horses, mules and donkeys, which can be contracted by other animals and humans.

Q fever, or query fever, is a bacterial infection found in cattle, sheep and goats and transmitted to humans when they breathe contaminated dust.

And ricin, which is made from the waste material left over from processing castor beans.

As for the novel coronavirus, China denies claims that it originated in a laboratory near the city of Wuhan, where contagious samples were stored. After word of the outbreak became public knowledge, Chinese officials cited Wuhan’s “wet market,” where wild animals — but not bats — are sold for consumption, as the source of the virus.

Early in 2018, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing sent two official warnings back to Washington that the Wuhan lab was conducting risky studies, using bats, on pathogens in the coronavirus family, the Washington Post reported on April 14. The Wuhan lab is China’s only bio-safety level four (BSL-4) facility and has been viewed with suspicion as scientists try to determine how the deadly virus crossed over into humans.

Suspicion of the lab was dismissed as a “conspiracy theory” by those who insisted that a wild animal market was the obvious source of the disease. 

News sources have been reporting that U.S. intelligence officials are investigating the possibility that the COVID-19 outbreak started in the virology laboratory in Wuhan, by a bat-to-human transmission, rather than the market, as reported by Chinese authorities. Intelligence officials do not have demonstrative evidence at this time, but there is evidence that “patient zero” worked at the Wuhan Institute of Virology lab. Open sources have been reporting that China may have pointed the finger at the market to divert blame from the laboratory. The motive for such diversion can only be speculated upon.

In late 2019, the FBI warned of a growing “biosecurity” threat within the United States, after Chinese nationals were caught attempting to sneak potentially dangerous viruses into the country. According to an April 1 report by the Washington Examiner, at least three incidents were detected by the FBI. The report from the bureau’s WMD directorate observed that “foreign scientific researchers who transport undeclared and undocumented biological materials into the U.S. in personal carry-on and/or checked luggage almost certainly present U.S. biosecurity and biosafety risks.”

Investigators warned, “It is impossible to determine, without testing, the validity of the contents of the samples and if they pose a risk to U.S. human, animal, or plant populations.”

The FBI’s chemical and biological intelligence unit detected at least three separate incidents in 2018 and 2019 where Chinese nationals tried to bring undeclared bacteria and viruses into the United States, according to unclassified documents obtained March 30 by Yahoo News.

Each of these failed attempts were detected by Customs and Border Protection at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport. One incident was only a couple of months before the coronavirus outbreak first appeared in Wuhan.

In May 2018, FBI investigators reported that a Chinese national was stopped and claimed to be “a breast cancer researcher in Texas” who “was not traveling with any biological products.” The Washington Examiner story further reported that following inspection of the subject’s possessions, the person admitted to be “possibly traveling with plasmids,” a type of extrachromosomal DNA. He was also in possession of a “centrifuge tube” in his checked bag, which he said was “non-infectious E. Coli bacteria-derived plasmids.” The FBI reported that the Chinese national was “unable to provide any accompanying documentation or permits,” so the centrifuge was placed on an “agricultural hold.”

In November 2018, the FBI reported a Chinese national was found with three vials labeled “antibodies” in his luggage. The person identified himself as a “biologist” but “had not declared the materials” and “did not have appropriate documentation for the items.” The traveler said that “the items came from a researcher in China who asked him to deliver them to another colleague” at another unnamed “U.S. research institution.” The writing on the vials and their destination inferred that the vials might contain “viable” specimens of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) viruses.

Regardless of the outcome of these detected attempts to bring substances into the United States, these incidents point to the need for greater detection and interdiction capabilities. Equally important are the issues of determining the intentions of foreign powers or hostile groups in producing and introducing biological agents into the United States or the global community.

Early in the outbreak, China reportedly attempted to suppress evidence of the spread of the disease by allegedly censoring doctors and orchestrating the “disappearance” of journalists. China took measures to restrict academic research on the novel coronavirus, and deleted government directives and notices from the internet.

The CDC “Field Epidemiology Manual,” which is available online, states that events involving the suspected intentional use of a biological or toxic agent require epidemiologists to work with nontraditional partners, specifically law enforcement. Cross-sector collaboration is necessary to prevent loss of life, protect public safety, and minimize adverse outcomes for both public health and law enforcement. Interactions require public health and law enforcement to develop and implement processes to improve coordination and collaboration.

The scope of an epidemiologic investigation is similar for unintentional and intentional events. The goals of a law enforcement investigation are to: identify the disease or illness-causing agent; identify the source and location of the exposure; determine the mode(s) of spread or transmission of the biological or toxic agent; and identify who might have been exposed.

Investigations also must direct interventions to reduce morbidity and mortality, identify, apprehend and prosecute perpetrators, and collect evidence for prosecution.

Any information or materials collected by law enforcement during a criminal investigation is handled as potential evidence. Evidence might include dissemination devices, clothing of victims or suspects, clinical specimens such as blood, other body fluids or secretions, environmental samples, documents, photographs and witness statements.

Evidence must be collected, maintained through chain-of-custody and analyzed in a manner consistent with evidentiary standards.

The combined resources of the intelligence, law enforcement, public health and private sector communities must be coordinated to meet the goals and objectives of fact-finding, detection, prevention, response and mitigation of potentially deadly material.

Biological and medical intelligence is aimed at the collection, analysis and dissemination of intelligence on biological and medical threats.

Media sources suggest that the present pandemic may be a result of reckless indifference or an ill-conceived intentional act. The pandemic is an ever-evolving event and new facts unfold daily. The outcome of this story is yet to be determined. 

Robert J. Girod is an attorney, a professor of intelligence analysis and criminology at Indiana State University and a former military officer in the Army Reserve and Indiana Guard Reserve.

Topics: Research and Development

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