Contrary to claims, the pandemic may have come from a lab — and regardless, it exposes the threat of biowarfare arms race

[Originally published in Salon.]
By Sam Husseini

There is no scientific finding that the novel coronavirus was bioengineered, but its origins are not entirely clear. Deadly pathogens discovered in the wild can be studied in secret in labs — and sometimes made more dangerous. That possibility, and other plausible scenarios, have been incorrectly dismissed in remarks by some scientists and government officials, and in the coverage of most major media outlets.

Regardless of the source of this pandemic, there is considerable documentation that a global biological arms race going on outside of public view could produce even more deadly pandemics in the future.

While much of the media and political establishment have minimized the threat from such lab work, some hawks on the American right like Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., have singled out Chinese biodefense researchers as uniquely dangerous. 

But there is every indication that U.S. lab work is every bit as threatening as that in Chinese labs. American labs also operate in secret, and are also known to be accident-prone.

The current dynamics of the biological arms race have been driven by U.S. government decisions that extend back decades. In December 2009, Reuters reported that the Obama administration was refusing even to negotiate the possible monitoring of biological weapons.

Much of the left in the U.S. now appears unwilling to scrutinize the origin of the pandemic — or the wider issue of biowarfare — perhaps because portions of the anti-Chinese right have been so vocal in making unfounded allegations. 

Governments that participate in such biological weapon research generally distinguish between "biowarfare" and "biodefense," as if to paint such "defense" programs as necessary. But this is rhetorical sleight-of-hand; the two concepts are largely indistinguishable. 

"Biodefense" implies tacit biowarfare, breeding more dangerous pathogens for the alleged purpose of finding a way to fight them. While this work appears to have succeeded in creating deadly and infectious agents, including deadlier flu strains, such "defense" research is impotent in its ability to defend us from this pandemic. 

The legal scholar who drafted the main U.S. law on the subject, Francis Boyle, warned in his 2005 book "Biowarfare and Terrorism" that an "illegal biological arms race with potentially catastrophic consequences" was underway, largely driven by the U.S. government.

For years, many scientists have raised concerns regarding bioweapons/biodefense lab work, and specifically about the fact that huge increases in funding have taken place since 9/11. This was especially true after the anthrax-by-mail attacks that killed five people in the weeks after 9/11, which the FBI ultimately blamed on a U.S. government biodefense scientist. A 2013 study found that biodefense funding since 2001 had totaled at least $78 billion, and more has surely been spent since then. This has led to a proliferation of laboratories, scientists and new organisms, effectively setting off a biological arms race. 

Following the Ebola outbreak in west Africa in 2014, the U.S. government paused funding for what are known as "gain-of-function" research on certain organisms. This work actually seeks to make deadly pathogens deadlier, in some cases making pathogens airborne that previously were not. With little notice outside the field, the pause on such research was lifted in late 2017.

During this pause, exceptions for funding were made for dangerous gain-of-function lab work. This included work jointly done by U.S. scientists from the University of North Carolina, Harvard and the Wuhan Institute of Virology. This work — which had funding from USAID and EcoHealth Alliance not originally acknowledged — was published in 2015 in Nature Medicine

A different Nature Medicine article about the origin of the current pandemic, authored by five scientists and published on March 17, has been touted by major media outlet and some officials — including current National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins — as definitively disproving a lab origin for the novel coronavirus. That journal article, titled "The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2," stated unequivocally: "Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus." This is a subtly misleading sentence. While the scientists state that there is no known laboratory "signature" in the SARS-Cov-2 RNA, their argument fails to take account of other lab methods that could have created coronavirus mutations without leaving such a signature.

Questioning the CDC: Is it a Complete Coincidence That China's Only BSL4 Is in Wuhan? -- Audio and Video

I asked about the origins of the outbreak at a news conference with a Center for Disease Control representative at the now shuttered National Press Club on Feb. 11. I asked if it was a complete coincidence that the pandemic started in Wuhan, which seems a hub of Chinese biowarfare capacity -- with the only declared BSL4 (biosafety level 4 laboratory, which deals with the most deadly pathogens) while the bat caves (in Yunnan province) some have cited as the relevant source of bats are over 1,000 miles from Wuhan. I noted that controversial gain-of-function lab work results in more deadly pathogens (like making them airborne), and that major labs, including in the U.S., have had accidents. The CDC's Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat replied that based on the information she has seen, the virus was of "zoonotic origin." She also stated regarding gain-of-function lab work that it's important to "protect researchers and their laboratory workers as well as the community around them and that we use science for the benefit of people." 

I followed up, asking if an alleged natural origin didn't preclude it coming out of a lab, since a lab could have acquired a bat virus and been working on it. Schuchat replied to the assembled journalists that "it is very common for rumors to emerge that can take on life of their own," but didn't answer the question. She noted that in the 2014 Ebola outbreak, some pointed to nearby labs as the possible cause, claiming this "was a key rumor that had to be overcome in order to help control the outbreak." And she reiterated: "So based on everything that I know right now, I can tell you the circumstances of the origin really look like animals to human. But your, your question, I heard." 

But there's no rumor. It’s a fact: Labs work with dangerous pathogens. U.S. and China have such dual use biowarfare/biodefense programs. China has major facilities at Wuhan. There are leaks from labs. (See Preventing a Biological Arms Race, MIT Press, 1990, edited by Susan Wright -- see (partial) review in Journal of International Law (10/92).)

Notice of event is here. Full video here and my questioning begins at 41:41. Audio attached, my question begins at 6:10 on the audio. Full article to come. Transcript: 

Husseini: Obviously the main concern is how to stop the virus and deaths and so on. But I think that we should look into the origins of this. Is it the CDCs contention that there's absolutely no relation to the BSL4 lab in Wuhan? It's my understanding this is the only place in China with a BSL4 lab. We in the United States have I think two dozen or so and there have been problems and incidents. Some of them have been shut down out of concerns of leakage of potential pathogens. And it's an ethical struggle in the United States about gain of function research. That is, research that actually attempts to make pathogens more lethal. China is a very opaque society [with a] totalitarian regime. We have no idea, or I don't know, you tell me: Do you have any idea of what kind of research could potentially be done? I'm not contending that this was intentional in any way. I'm just asking is it a complete coincidence that this outbreak happened in the one city in China with a BSL4 lab and shouldn't we be having at least some of the discussion about the ethics of some of the research that happens here? Thank you.

Schuchat: Thank you for those comments. Based on everything that I know about what is going on with this outbreak and the research that's being conducted, well as the genomic sequences that have been posted and the comparison with animals strains, the pattern that we're seeing is quite consistent with emergence from animal to human acquisition and adaptability or mutations that permit the virus to be easily spread between people. There's some emerging research about, you know, the virus itself is related to bat viruses, that's what the SARS virus and the MERS virus. But there was an intriguing report about pangolin sequencing -- an animal that is apparently a large part of the wildlife trade around the world, with 99 percent similarity. But what our scientists tell us is you actually need more like 99.9 percent similarity for us to understand origin. The animal origins and the circumstances of the emergence of this virus are really important to understand and it's one of the key questions that the global community wants to look into.

Schuchat: In terms of the question about gain of function research and laboratory issues. Very important for us as a scientific community to have practices that protect researchers and their laboratory workers as well as the community around them and that we use science for the benefit of people. So I am closely involved in this response and everything that I've seen so far is very consistent with the animal to human spread that we've seen other zoonotic origin. 

Husseini: May I follow up on that -- just -- I mean, the two things don't necessarily preclude each other. That is, the Chinese lab could well have acquired the bat [virus]. It's one or two thousand miles away -- the caves where the bats are [from] that are allegedly the cause. So wouldn't -- the two things aren't mutually exclusive, are they?

Schuchat: Yeah, let me leave a comment. Information is critical and having the very best information available to those who -- to everyone, to be able to protect themselves, their families, their communities is essential. In the midst of new infections, it is very common for rumors to emerge that can take on life of their own. So as you mentioned, a laboratory in the center of what else is happening in that province -- I'm reminded of concerns we heard when I was in Sierra Leone in 2014 with the Ebola response. There was a concern that there was a hemorrhagic virus research center in Sierra Leone, and maybe that's where the virus had come from. It was a key rumor that had to be overcome in order to help control the outbreak. So based on everything that I know right now, I can tell you the circumstances of the origin really look like animals to human. But your, your question, I heard.

Sanders Suspends: What Happened? What Now?

Kyle Kulinski of Secular Talk commented just as Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign: "Bernie made a number of mistakes that I highlighted and broke down in detail. No excuses. Having said that, you're out of your fucking mind if you think I'll forget or look past 'bloody monday', aka the day Obama got Pete & Amy to drop & endorse Biden. Saving his campaign."

In fact, the "Bloody Monday" move -- when Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar both endorsed Biden just after his South Carolina win and just before "Super Tuesday" -- might be the tip of the iceberg in terms of how the DNC or other establishment forces molded the campaign to producer this outcome. 

Consider:

* Kamala Harris and Cory Booker pulled out of the race before South Carolina, paving the way for Biden's win there. Jim Clyburn of course endorsed Biden just before South Carolina. Tragically, Jesse Jackson only endorsed Sanders after. 

* Warren split the progressive ranks throughout and ultimately refused to endorse Sanders. 

* Even the choices of the candidates was useful to stopping Sanders. Pete Buttigieg was from Indiana and the net effect of his campaign was to deny Sanders a clear win in not-so-far-away Iowa. Amy Klobuchar was from Minnesota and so the net effect of her campaign was to throw that state to Biden so that Biden won something substantial outside of the south on Super Tuesday, making his rise appear national and therefore plausibly inevitable. 

* Ostensibly antiwar candidate Tulsi Gabbard throughout refused to meaningfully criticize the war addicted Biden -- even when she had a clear shot to do so during the debates on his Iraq war lies. Meanwhile, Sanders just kept saying Biden voted for the Iraq war while Sanders didn't. Sanders never meaningfully made the case that Biden played key role in making the Iraq invasion happen and never really tore into his lies

* Mike Gravel -- who might have really tore into Biden -- was excluded from the debate stage throughout. 

* Julián Castro was marginalized shortly after he attacked Biden. 

  * Bloomberg coming in had the net effect of Warren going after him -- for things she could well have gone after Biden about but didn't. His demise effectively gave the base a sense of weird relief that Biden is the nominee: "Well, at least we didn't get stuck with Billionaire Bloomberg".

You couldn't have planned it better for Biden if you tried. And lots of forces -- from the DNC to the establishment media did try in thousands of ways.
 
Additionally, the entire "Ukrainegate" obsession -- contrary to a slew of deluded progressive commentators at the time -- built up Biden as the anti-Trump. Trump was trying to attack him, so he must be the one Trump is afraid of was the obvious logic. That was the net effect of the entire media focus on that including the ultimate impeachment (remember impeachment?). 

Indeed, in this incredibly vicious cycle, just as many Republicans likely turned to Trump because they felt they needed a corrupt celebrity to stop Hillary Clinton, many Democrats likely turned to Biden for similar reasons this year.

And at a societal level, the pandemic struck chords of fear in people's collective psychology. It was like the Y2K story. As January 1, 2000 approached, people were filled with dread and fear, so that what should have been a time for great hope was a time for just hoping to get by. Like now. The pandemic pushed many people to turn to the familiar, to something that they associate with not being a disaster. (This is the opposite of what happened in 1900 -- that period was apparently greeted with great embrace.)
 
Then there's Sanders' own role, his incapacity -- or more likely, his unwillingness -- to mount sharper attacks on Biden, of shedding his imperial presumptions and more deeply taking on the foreign policy establishment. Sanders' ultimate legacy may be what the late great Bruce Dixon called "Sheepdogging." 

So, now what?

As I outlined last month:

There are two obvious responses:

Burn it Down: The impulsive thing to do would be to want to burn down the Democratic Party. It’s possible that the establishment of the Democratic Party would be OK with this — they seem to fear a President Sanders more than the fear another term of Trump. So, people would stay home or vote for a third party or independent candidate who openly states that they have virtually no chance of winning.

Cave In: Others might insist that no matter how badly the Democratic Party establishment treats its voters, they need to get in line come November and vote for whoever the nominee is. This is euphemistically referred to as “hold your nose and voting.” People have done this for decades and it’s typically resulted in the corporate wing of the Democratic Party becoming more and more powerful.

The first of these will be disastrous because it will help Trump.

The second will be disastrous because it effectively surrenders control of the Democratic Party to the corporate wing, probably for the foreseeable future.

But there is a third choice: The VotePact strategy.

With the VotePact strategy,  in the general election, disenchanted Democratics team up with a disenchanted Republicans. They pair up: spouses and friends and coworkers and neighbors and debating partners and ex-facebook friends. Instead of the two of them voting for candidates they don’t want, they pair up and vote for the third party or independent candidate of their choice.

Given the pandemic, all bets may be off. Things could slide into disaster -- or a great new world could be born. One could almost envision the rise of the Stay-At-Home party. People can talk to their loved ones in a way they never have. And they may embrace their neighbors -- even if it is at ten feet -- as the never have before. Zoom could be filled with hopes and dreams and a path might be found to get there. We might be driven by fear and shallow hate and sectarian thinking -- or we might decide to come together as a country and as a world as we never have before. 

VotePact takes work. But it's a path out of the duopoly and toward freedom. Given the tumult before us, it is actually a rather moderate proposal, drawing us to a sane center, away from the disastrous paths of both Biden, which gave birth to Trump -- and Trump himself. 

Giving Thanks for Political Disagreements

How a Would-be Thanksgiving Argument Can Help Birth a Revolution
by Sam Husseini

It's become something of a cliché: Many people dread Thanksgiving in part because they have to break bread with friends -- and especially relatives -- who they adamantly disagree with politically. 

One is pro-immigration, the other wants to build a bigger wall, etc. 

But what if this annoying encounter was actually a blessing?

I don't identify as either a Democrat or a Republican, but I recognize that there are millions of people who identify as "Democrats" for some good reason and there are lots of people who identify as "Republican" for good reason.

Thing is, those "good reasons" mostly have to do with how bad the other party is.

And a further rub is that many rank and file Democratic voters and Republican voters agree on certain core issues: They are sick of Wall Street and big business domination. They are skeptical of perpetual wars, etc. This is in spite of the fact that the establishment of both the Democratic and Republican parties are deeply tied to Wall Street and back perpetual wars, occasional rhetoric to the contrary.

Can the Religious Left Take Down Nuclear Weapons?

Pope Francis will travel to Hiroshima and Nagasaki this weekend. On Sunday, he will give a public address at the ground-zero site of the nuclear attack on Nagasaki. He is expected to give the clearest articulation yet of the Vatican's position, since 2017, that condemns the "very possession" of nuclear weapons. This is something Plowshares activists have been arguing -- and acting upon -- since 1980.

                                                                                                   ***

Prosecutor E. Greg Gilluly railed to the jury as he held up a copy of Daniel Ellsberg's book -- The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner: It was evidence, but not "for the truth of it." Judge Lisa Godbey Wood of the US District Court for the Southern District of Georgia only grudgingly allowed the book to be entered into evidence since the seven activists, who could face decades in prison, had left it at Kings Bay base which houses the Trident submarine nuclear weapons arsenal on the Atlantic coast.

In her testimony, Plowshares defendant Clare Grady of the Ithaca, New York Catholic Worker community tried to explain to the jury the motivation and urgency of the group: US government is using nuclear weapons daily as a gun pointed at the head of the planet. But even as she spoke, she had a series of legal guns pointed at her own head. She and her fellow defendants had been threatened with contempt if they disobeyed Wood's edict not to cite evidence or legal arguments that might result in acquittal. As law professor Francis Boyle  warned before the trial: “This is a kangaroo court with a rubber stamp and a railroad all put together.”

So, Grady and the six others -- the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 -- pleaded with the jury to look to their conscience. The activists were following the biblical edict to turn swords into plowshares, after all. But the jury seemingly didn't crack open either Ellsberg's book or their hearts, deciding on guilty verdicts on all four counts, including conspiracy, destruction of property and depredation, against all seven defendants in under two hours late last month.

Defendant Elizabeth McAlister, the 79-year-old widow of Phil Berrigan from Jonah House in Baltimore, who donated her own blood for the action said: “The government has set up a religion of nuclearism. It is terrifying and dead, dead wrong. It is a form of idolatry in this culture." 

If that seems like hyperbole, consider that Wood allowed prosecution witnesses to state -- under oath -- that they could "neither confirm or deny" the existence of nuclear warheads at the base. The defense had objected to this -- which had been allowed in prior trials of Plowshares activists -- in pretrial motions, but as with much else, the prosecution got away with things without so much as an objection being heard by the jury. Thus Wood effectively denied the central empirical reality of the case, that Kings Bay houses six Trident submarines each submarine can carry 24 submarine-launched ballistic missiles designated Trident D5. Each of those missiles can carry up to eight 100-kiloton nuclear warheads -- about 30 times the explosive force of the Hiroshima bomb. All the while, the defense was effectively dismissed for acting on their "subjective" beliefs.

Plowshares History Talk by Art Laffin

Plowshares History Talk 

(Talk by Art Laffin given on Oct. 22, 2019 at evening support gathering during  the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 Trial at St. Athanasius Episcopal Church, Brunswick, Georgia. This version Includes some slight revisions. Audio is here. Laffin is member of the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker community in Washington, D.C. He is also editor of the two-volume work Swords into Plowshares, which has a forward by the late Father Daniel Berrigan.)


Biden Taking Iraq Lies to the Max

Presidential candidate Joe Biden is adding lies on top of lies to cover up his backing of the Iraq invasion.

At last night's ABC/DNC debate Biden lied about his Iraq record, just like he did at the first two debates.

In the July debate, Biden claimed: “From the moment ‘shock and awe’ started, from that moment, I was opposed to the effort, and I was outspoken as much as anyone at all in the Congress.”

When he first said that, it received virtually no scrutiny except for Mideast scholar Stephen Zunes, who wrote the piece "Biden Is Doubling Down on Iraq War Lies." Zunes outlined much of Biden's record, including his insistence in May 2003 -- months after the Iraq invasion -- that “There was sufficient evidence to go into Iraq.”

At last night's debate on ABC, Biden claimed that he voted for the Iraq invasion authorization to "to allow inspectors to go in to determine whether or not anything was being done with chemical weapons or nuclear weapons."

But the congressional vote happened on October 11 (see Biden's speech then). And by that time Iraq had agreed to allow weapons inspectors back in. On Sept. 16, 2002, the New York Times reported: "U.N. Inspectors Can Return Unconditionally, Iraq Says." (This was immediately after a delegation organized by the Institute for Public Accuracy -- where I work -- had gone to Iraq.)

Now, independent journalist Michael Tracey, who interviewed Biden in New Hampshire recently, reports that Biden made the ridiculous claim that he opposed the invasion of Iraq even before it started. Said Biden: “Yes, I did oppose the war before it began." See Tracey's piece: "Joe Biden's Jumbled Iraq War Revisionism" and video.