Given the unprecedented nature of both the true public health risk and accompanying informational hysteria associated with ‘coronavirus’ (a.k.a. COVID-19 / nCoV2019), I have some hesitancy to blog this because I think it is potentially irresponsible given the current public anxieties. In the worst case, it could be wrong and amplify conspiracy thinking about the crisis, which is certainly not my intent. That said, based on my research, this crisis reminds me of Russian information warfare associated with the AIDS epidemic as well as 9/11 conspiracism; and the informational profiles of modern warfare campaigns in Syria and Ukraine as well. Despite the potential for contributing to conspiracy thinking with this analysis, I think talking about things like this openly is important to improve our informational (and apparently public health) security posture.
It is inarguable that Russia is spreading disinformation about the coronavirus in multiple sources, accusing both China and the United States of releasing it as a bioweapon. Resultingly, there seems to be evidence that public officials in China and the US have accused the other respective nation of strategically orchestrating this crisis for warfare purposes. Allegorically, conspiracy theories about the virus as a bioweapon seem popular online, and I’ve heard them in personal conversations as well.
To give this unprecedented crisis the unique definition it deserves, I think it is clear that the Russian activity around coronavirus may classify the outbreak as a ‘hybrid biothreat’ – a mashup of the terms ‘hybrid threat’ and ‘biothreat’.
A hybrid threat has been described by NATO as: “Hybrid threats combine military and non-military as well as covert and overt means, including disinformation, cyber attacks, economic pressure, deployment of irregular armed groups and use of regular forces. Hybrid methods are used to blur the lines between war and peace, and attempt to sow doubt in the minds of target populations.”
A biothreat has been described in military academia as: “Biological threat agents or, more colloquially, biothreats or bioagents are pathogens and/or their toxic products that pose a substantial threat to human health. They are a diverse group that includes viruses, bacteria, and toxins from biological sources, and indeed that diversity is reflected in the extraordinary range of transmissibility, infectivity, and lethality that they exhibit. Bioagents encompass both naturally occurring and engineered pathogens and the threat they pose originates from natural outbreaks as well as from their intentional release.”
Thus, a ‘hybrid biothreat’ could be seen as such a biothreat which supports a hybrid threat kind of warfare campaign, but which does not rise to the level of perceived threat which is likely to result in a direct military confrontation.
The question is whether Russia is simply exploiting an impromptu opportunity to sow international discord – or whether the disinformation is supporting actual biowarfare as a component of a higher-order hybrid warfare campaign. There’s no hard evidence that the novel coronavirus is a Russian bioweapon, but perhaps I can persuade you circumstantially that the Russians have masterfully exploited the crisis to the benefit of their broader ‘portfolio’ of operations. Maybe it is common sense.
The first piece of evidence I would highlight is the legacy of the ‘Operation Infektion’ active measure from the 1980’s, where Communist Russian and East German disinformation agents claimed the HIV virus which causes AIDS was a bioengineered weapon of the United States military. It was a successful operation which seems to have fundamentally undermined faith and confidence in the US government.
So just to note, there is a clear precedence in this idea of blending disinformation with a public concern about a viral biothreat as an ‘active measure’ – accusing the U.S. military of criminally bioengineering the disease as a weapon – and it is a tactic historically attributable to Russian influence.
The next piece of evidence I’d reference is that the well-acknowledged Russian proxy disinformation outlet ZeroHedge was banned from Twitter over spreading allegations that coronavirus was a Chinese-engineered bioweapon, and for ‘doxxing’ a Chinese doctor associated with the crisis in late January 2020.
The offending ZeroHedge article claimed that the novel coronavirus contained inserted HIV genes. Although the scholarly paper they cited in the article was withdrawn because the same gene segments could be found in a variety of organisms, ZeroHedge seems to have continued to amplify this debunked theme over time. (This is a site I’ve been watching a while for its far-right ideology, financial apocalypticism, and bitcoin promotion. It’s the kind of Russian disinformation site which apparently “promotes Trump” (like Infowars) in order to achieve Russian objectives.)
According to ZeroHedge [highlighted as disinformation]: “The theory is that the virus, which was developed by infectious disease experts may have originated in the Wuhan-based lab of Dr. Peng Zhou, China’s preeminent researcher of bat immune systems, specifically in how their immune systems adapt to the presence of viruses like coronavirus and other destructive viruses. Somehow, the virus escaped from the lab, and the Hunan fish market where the virus supposedly originated is merely a ruse.
Now, a respected epidemiologist who recently caught flack for claiming in a twitter threat that the virus appeared to be much more contagious than initially believed is pointing out irregularities in the virus’s genome that suggests it might have been genetically engineered for the purposes of a weapon, and not just any weapon but the deadliest one of all.
In “Uncanny similarity of unique inserts in the 2019-nCoV spike protein to HIV-1 gp120 and Gag”, Indian researchers are baffled by segments of the virus’s RNA that have no relation to other coronaviruses like SARS, and instead appear to be closer to HIV. The virus even responds to treatment by HIV medications.”
Next, in more transparent alignment with Russian disinformation such as the prior case of Operation Infektion, it has been widely reported that Russian state media have outright blamed the virus as emerging from an American bioweapons program and being intended to target the Chinese economy. George Soros – a frequent concept in Russian conspiracism is also included in the milieu (perhaps giving the conspiracism an anti-Semitic dimension).
The idea of putting a wedge between East and West (to wit China and America) is an idea I’ve discussed previously here in association with Russian disinformation, and may potentially serve Russian interests. (Specifically in the case of China, one might also look historically to the case of the Boxer Rebellion, where diplomats saw Russia playing both sides of the crisis.)
It is well acknowledged that as in the case of the 2016 election that Russia played both sides in an information war – and continues to sow such divides in American society in the lead-up to the 2020 elections. (See how I tried to define ‘schizowarfare’ politically.)
However, it is also clear that Russia played both sides of the informational coin in the lead-up to the hot war of WW2 as well, as evidenced by both anti-fascist propaganda, Russian ‘theosophical’ influence on Nazi ideology, and the very substance of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.
On matters of human migration, in line with the current crisis, Russia’s prescient border closures with China could be seen as suspect. But in addition broadly elsewhere, the coronavirus hysteria has created problems for Europe in line with ‘weaponized migration’ that is historically associated with aggressive Russian action in Syria. This can be related to the case of Turkish interactions with Russia in Syria leading to new waves of destabilizing migrants into Greece, as Turkey also defends against a high infection rate emanating from Iranians.
Italy, home of Roman Catholicism – a faith which Russian Orthodoxy is historically adversarial to – is one of the hardest hit areas by both the migration crisis and the epidemic.
Indeed in Europe, Far-Right parties often associated with Russian influence are using the coronavirus and migration problem to argue against open societies and borders.
Next, we could turn our attention to not only the harsh impact of the coronavirus on the US economy, but of the subsequent shock which was sent through global financial markets as Russia ignited an oil price war with Saudi Arabia. (Looking back at the 2008 financial crisis, it was noted that Russia had attempted to crater the US market recovery by dumping mortgage bonds (which China apparently refused to do and notified US regulators).)
So certainly, from the standpoint of information warfare, synergy with existing campaigns in Ukraine and Syria, and potentially economic warfare as well, there may be a lot of good evidence to tie Russia to aspects of the coronavirus hysteria. It certainly seems to fit the definition of a hybrid threat.
Biothreat seems self evident in the case of coronavirus. But what about a bioweapon? Russia has accused both the US and China of having created coronavirus as a bioweapon, but has anyone asked if Russia may have? Russia is historically known not just to have an outstanding disinformation capability, but to have one of the most clandestine and advanced bioweapons programs in the world as well.
And for the record, it is actually not crazy to ask if the coronavirus had emerged from a lab.
As Scientific American reported on March 11, the Chinese bat coronavirus expert expert Dr. Shi Zhegli – who had discovered the origins of many former coronaviruses (including the previous Chinese SARS outbreak of 2002-2003) “had never expected this kind of thing to happen in Wuhan, in central China”, and remembered thinking “could [the coronavirus] have come from our lab?”. ‘Her studies had shown that the southern, subtropical areas of Guangdong, Guangxi and Yunnan have the greatest risk of coronaviruses jumping to humans from animals—particularly bats, a known reservoir for many viruses.’
It seems conceivable to me that a large-scale hybrid warfare campaign most likely linked to Russia (but possibly including some collusive involvement from China, North Korea, and/or Iran) is being waged around coronavirus.
It is interesting to wonder if the virus was actually engineered and released by Russia’s allegedly mature bioweapons program in order to achieve some kind of advanced synergistic hybrid warfare agenda. Russia’s accusations of both Chinese and American bioweapons activity are interesting in light of Russia’s purportedly more mature capabilities in biowarfare; not to mention past notoriety for its AIDS disinformation campaign.
I’d assume the very idea of discussing coronavirus as a bioweapon has become a taboo subject for most intellectuals because of the sheer face value stupidity of the Russian disinformation and its consumers. Followingly, I assume the ‘fog of falsehood‘ around the virus has made the idea of discussing it being a Russian bioweapon forbidden too.
However, maybe the idea of rejecting it as a bioweapon at the academic level is just what Russia wants, because then nobody who cares about how they look in the scholarly community asks if Russia is responsible. If nobody asks the question, then it is possible we could never be prepared for the scenario. So I think it is important to ask, especially of the ‘guy’ with a behavioral pattern of being guilty of the crime before – but who is currently pointing the finger at everyone else.
Certainly it is more parsimonious that the virus came from the outdoor market, or was a curated sample leaked from the Chinese lab, than it came from a Russian source. But based on Russia’s lies about the United States in the past on similar matters, and Russia’s strategic capitalization of the current matter to augment its warfare campaigns in Ukraine and Syria – or to ignite an oil price war simultaneous to the stock market drop on coronavirus – and I would say it is much more likely that Russia is responsible than America is, if it is a bioweapon afterall. Who benefits?
Neither China nor America clearly benefits, but I think Russia seems to be attempting to. It seems a masterful move to divide China and the U.S., along the contours of previously observed patterns associated with Russian strategy. Perhaps the location of the initial outbreak was perfect for both finger pointing and plausible deniability by Russia.
By these measures, I think even if the novel coronavirus is not bioengineered or a bioweapon, the simple fact of Russia’s weaponization of information, migration, and economics around the epidemic highlights the similar weaponization of the virus itself – placing it in the category of what I’d call a ‘hybrid biothreat’.
UPDATE 3/18/2020: Given genomic evidence suggesting the novel coronavirus evolved normally and is not genetically modifed, it strongly debunks Russia’s bioengineered weapon assertions. But it does not prove that the virus was not intentionally leaked. I believe that the raft of press reports of Russian disinformation about the coronavirus outbreak over the past few days supports most of the ideas in this blog. I think it is only a matter of time before the clear connection is made to Russian hybrid activities.