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.

It’s well known that the European conquest of the New World was facilitated far less by military aggression than by all the diseases — smallpox, measles, influenza, the bubonic plague, and more — Europeans brought over with them. Some historians estimate that these scourges killed up to 95 percent of the New World’s indigenous population. However, this mass death was almost entirely accidental. The only recorded incident of a deliberate sickening of native people involved the “gift” in 1763 of two smallpox-infected blankets from British soldiers to Delaware Indians. A letter from one British commander to another expressed the intent to “Inocculate the Indians by means of Blankets, as well as to try Every other method that can serve to Extirpate this Execrable Race.”

Though it’s not clear whether the blankets successfully transmitted smallpox to the Delaware Indians, smallpox subsequently took the lives of 500,000 to 1.5 million Native Americans.

World Wars, Biobombs, and Fever Spray

The first World War brought unprecedented carnage to Europe. It also featured more sophisticated methods of germ warfare, thanks to advances in microbiology. German agents used anthrax and glanders to weaken Romanian sheep, Argentinian livestock, and French and American cavalry horses. On the flip side, French saboteurs infected German-bound horses with glanders.

As for World War II, evidence strongly suggests that in the Battle of Stalingrad, Russian forces deliberately infected up to 100,000 German soldiers with a rare respiratory form of rabbit fever. The mode of transmission was most likely an aerosol spraying campaign. The most notorious WWII bioweapons facility was the Japanese military’s Unit 731, a sprawling compound of 150 or so buildings near the Chinese city of Harbin. By deliberately planting typhoid fever and cholera into Chinese water systems, as well as dropping ceramic containers holding plague-infected fleas onto Chinese cities, Unit 731’s biological weapons are thought to have killed anywhere from 200,000 to 580,000 people.

In what was known as “Operation Cherry Blossoms at Night,” Japanese forces planned to target San Diego with balloons containing plague-infected fleas, but Japan surrendered a month before the operation’s launch date.

The Cold War and Weaponizing Germs

Invading Russian forces captured some of Unit 731’s operatives, but most faced no postwar confinement (or prosecution) after cutting a deal with the Americans to share classified data about their unprecedentedly cruel experiments on live subjects. Throughout the Cold War, communist propagandists accused America of using bioweapons, whether against enemy forces during the Korean War or by systematically treating the Cuban populace as biological guinea pigs.

Although the U.S. denies these allegations — as you might expect — what’s undisputed is that America started its own bioweapons program during WWII and kept it running until the end of the sixties. The U.S. Army Biological Warfare Laboratories were established at Maryland’s Camp Detrick in the spring of 1943. Before being shut down by Richard Nixon’s executive order in 1969 — a year when the program’s budget approached $300 million — Army technicians researched smallpox, anthrax, brucellosis, botulism, plague, hantavirus, yellow fever, typhus, bird flu, and other diseases. The biological weapons they produced were then tested at Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah, as well as other open-air venues, often upon unsuspecting civilians.

During 1954’s “Operation Big Itch,” cardboard bombs containing hundreds of thousands of uninfected fleas were dropped to see if the fleas would remain alive and attach themselves to human hosts — which they did.

In May 1955’s “Operation Big Buzz,” 300,000 mosquitoes infected with yellow fever were dispersed by air and on the ground across parts of Georgia. And in “Project Bellwether” during the late 1950s and early 1960s, researchers at Dugway Proving Grounds continued dropping untold numbers of infected mosquitoes onto an unwitting American public.

During Senate subcommittee hearings in 1977, Army officials revealed that between 1949 and 1969, they conducted 239 open-air tests of biological agents on unaware soldiers and civilians. In September 1950, a U.S. Navy ship sprayed the pathogen Serratia marcescens toward the shores of San Francisco for a solid week. Subsequent testing revealed the pathogen had traveled more than 30 miles, leading to a sudden spike in pneumonia and rare urinary tract infections.

In 1951, the Army exposed African-Americans to the fungus Aspergillus fumigatus to determine if they were more vulnerable than whites to the infection.

In 1966’s infamous “Subway Experiment,” researchers dropped bacteria-filled light bulbs onto tracks in midtown Manhattan and discovered the microbes spread for miles.

In a 1968 report, the Army concluded that, “Similar covert attacks with a pathogenic disease-causing agent during peak traffic periods could be expected to expose large numbers of people to infection and subsequent illness or death.”

Since the Cold War was one giant death race, the Soviets were busy stockpiling their own caches of biological weapons. Together, the Soviets and Americans produced enough nasty germs and viruses to kill everyone on Earth several times over. In the 1920s, predating even the atrocities of Unit 731, Soviet authorities experimented with typhus, glanders, and melioidosis on live human subjects at the gulag on the Solovetsky Islands. In the 1970s, even though they had signed a pledge to discontinue bioweapons development, the Russians’ Biopreparat program employed an estimated 50,000 people.

Since humans are prone to error, this led to an accidental aerosol release of smallpox in 1971 that sickened ten and killed three. It also led to an accidental leak of anthrax in 1979 that claimed more than a hundred lives. It’s speculated that if winds had been blowing in the opposite direction, anthrax would have spread into urban areas and possibly killed hundreds of thousands. In a top-secret 1980s program ironically dubbed “Ecology,” the Soviet Ministry of Agriculture developed variants of livestock-killing diseases designed to be sprayed from airplanes over hundreds of miles.

Thirty years ago, after the lead Soviet scientist investigating the bioweapon potential of lethal Marburg virus died of the disease, authorities discovered that the variant taken from the man’s organs was more powerful than the original. The Soviet Ministry of Defense weaponized this new, super-deadly strain, which they called “Variant U.”

But lest you think it was only the Americans and Soviets, the U.K. conducted bioweapon experiments throughout the first half of last century and became the first nation to successfully weaponize biological weapons for mass production. British researchers also bombarded Scotland’s Gruinard Island with anthrax for more than half a century. Although Israel denies it, the International Red Cross reported that during the 1948 War for Independence, an Israeli militia released Salmonella typhi bacteria into the water supply of Acre, leading to an outbreak of typhoid fever in the port city.

During the Rhodesian Bush War (1964-1979), the Rhodesian government deliberately contaminated water along the Mozambique border with cholera. After the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Iraq admitted it had produced 19,000 liters of concentrated botulinum toxin, and loaded 10,000 liters onto military weapons. As far as China’s bioweapons program goes, it’s anyone’s guess. The country’s officials are masters of propaganda and secrecy, leading to the possibility that we may never be able to definitively rule out the idea of an intentional origin for this new coronavirus strain.

Biological Terrorism

Compared to conventional incendiary weapons, bioweapons are easy and cheap to produce — as well as difficult to detect. Not to mention a would-be DIY bioterrorist can take as many lives with a nickel’s worth of rogue germs as a government could with $10,000 in conventional weapons. The documentary Bioterror quotes Larry Wayne Harris, identified only as “a former member of a white supremacist group,” who explains how cheap and simple it is for ordinary citizens to acquire deadly toxins.

“Biologicals level the playing field,” Harris points out. “Before [there were] governments with massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons, with aircraft carriers, with all types of machine guns, stuff of this nature. The private populace did not have these. But trying to use a tank against a bottle of germs is stupid.”

In 1972, Chicago police arrested a pair of radical leftist college students who had planned to poison the city’s water supply with typhus.

In what’s known as the single largest bioterrorist attack in American history, in 1984, Oregon cultists who followed Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh deliberately poured a brown liquid containing salmonella into salad bars at ten local restaurants in an attempt to incapacitate a sufficient number of ordinary citizens to swing an election in the cult’s favor. A total of 751 people were poisoned, 45 of whom were hospitalized, but no one died.

In 2001, a week after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Americans were gripped with fear about a rash of letters containing anthrax spores that were sent to public officials. At least 22 people were made sick by the letters, and five people died, including two postal workers.

It remains to be seen how much total death and destruction this coronavirus pandemic will cause before a vaccine arrives, if one does.

Those who speculate about a lab origin for the virus can point to clues, rather than hard evidence or expert consensus. But is such speculation pure lunacy? It’s a pretty crazy world right now. Crazy developments seem the new norm. And bioweapons are very real. Sometimes it seems a little crazy thinking is warranted. Elton Cornell is a lover of fine wine, curvy women, and V-8 engines. He’s always right, but he takes no pleasure in it because the rest of the world is always wrong.

Historic Perspective on Germs

The strain of coronavirus that emerged in late 2019 in Wuhan, China, spread throughout the globe and is thus officially a pandemic — a term describing an outbreak occurring across multiple continents. The virus has claimed more than 300,000 lives as the world holds its breath and hopes things don’t go from very bad to apocalyptic.

The following diseases have led to the deadliest pandemics in history. Since these fatalities have occurred over centuries, even millennia, under conditions where record-keeping was often sloppy at best, the body counts are only estimated.

Estimated All-Time Death Toll: 300-500 MILLION

Spread with alarming ease through contact with infected persons — or even items that they’ve merely touched — smallpox begins with a rash that leads to pus-filled blisters that lead to scabs and scars and lesions and howling pain and blindness and death. It’s been cutting human lives short for 12,000 years and was one of the deadliest agents in the near-genocide of Native Americans that occurred after Europeans arrived bearing their Old World diseases.

Estimated All-Time Death Toll: 300 MILLION

Able to live two hours in airspace where someone’s coughed or sneezed, measles is so infectious it will sicken nine of ten unvaccinated/nonimmune people in one household. In 2000, measles was declared eliminated in the U.S., but last year, with more kids not being vaccinated, cases approached 1,300. Globally, it still kills nearly a million annually. In 1875, on the island of Fiji, measles cut down a third of the population; survivors torched entire villages, often burning the sick alive.

Estimated All-Time Death Toll: 300 MILLION

Spread via mosquito bite, a staggering 350-600 million new cases of malaria occur every year with a fatality rate of just under a half of one percent. Malaria’s existence has been documented since at least the time of the ancient Roman Empire (where it was known as “Roman Fever”), and its prevalence is thought to have been a contributing factor in pulling ancient Rome down into the Dark Ages.

Estimated All-Time Death Toll: 250 MILLION

Transmitted through bites from fleas who became infected after sucking the blood of diseased rats, the bubonic plague almost wiped out Europe twice — during the Plague of Justinian (541-542), in which half of the continent’s population died, and during the more infamous “Black Death” (1346-1353), which by some estimates wiped out two-thirds of Europe’s entire population. The last great plague pandemic was in China during the 1850s and took out 12 million souls.

Estimated All-Time Death Toll: 200 MILLION

History’s deadliest flu pandemic was the so-called “Spanish Flu” of 1918-1920, which infected one-third of the entire world’s population and killed anywhere from 50-100 million people. It coincided with World War I but almost doubled that bloody conflict’s overall death toll. It was so widespread that even the King of Spain and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson came down with the bug. There have been other flu pandemics such as the Russian Flu and the Hong Kong Flu, but none have come close to the Spanish Flu’s murderous ferocity.

Estimated All-Time Death Toll: 200 MILLION

Since it’s an airborne germ and the air is free, an estimated one in every three living humans has been exposed to TB. The infection will remain latent and non-transmissible in 90-95 percent of cases. But when the infection becomes active, symptoms include night sweats, chills, chest pain, and coughing up blood. If left untreated, TB can mean a quick trip to the grave.

Estimated All-Time Death Toll: 100 MILLION

Acquired primarily through contaminated water and causing dehydration, vomiting, and pale, slightly milky diarrhea, cholera has been documented since the time of the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates. It remained relatively quiet for several centuries, until a series of seven pandemics emerged from India’s Ganges River starting in 1817 and persisting through the 1900s. In the 1990s, a new strain of cholera was detected that may signal a looming eighth pandemic.

Estimated All-Time Death Toll: 50 MILLION

Typically spread via lice or fleas, dirty water, crowded jail cells, or other conditions involving poor sanitation, typhus starts off with flulike symptoms before causing telltale red dots to spread all over the body. The dots blossom into foul-smelling open sores while the victim’s mind unspools into feverish delirium. A slow, painful death follows. It’s suspected that typhus caused the Plague of Athens (430 B.C.), killing a quarter of the city’s population. As Napoleon retreated from Moscow in 1812, more of his soldiers died from typhus than were killed by Russians. Speaking of Russians, three million of them fell victim to typhus during World War I alone.

Estimated All-Time Death Toll: 40 MILLION

Believed to have first been transmitted from chimps to humans in West Africa in the 1920s, close to two-thirds of global HIV cases are still clustered in Africa. South of the Sahara, an estimated five percent of the population is currently HIV-positive, meaning the overall death toll may eclipse 90-100 million in the next five years. After emerging in Africa, the virus was spotted in Haiti in the 1960s, then moved quietly to New York and San Francisco in the 1970s. It finally made global headlines in the early 1980s when a mysterious “gay cancer” was correlated to a sudden spike in deaths among young gay men.

Not to make light of a horrible situation, but this article could help make your global protests a bit more effective. Just sayin’ ….

Have Something to Add?