Is COVID-19 a ‘Chinese’ virus as President Trump says, or is it a virus ‘brought into China by US soldiers’, as Beijing alleges? Is it really an off-take from the Wuhan wet markets gone viral? In these times of geo-political tussle for supremacy between a super power and a wannabe one, the truth would be difficult to arrive at, but arrive we must – just as we must eschew our propensity to tinker with Nature, bordering on the suicidal.
The fact is that COVID-19 is an autonomous ‘bio-weapon’ of sorts: its results are still unfolding, and it is likely to affect humanity for decades and alter power equations, as economies take a beating all round.
Is A Man-Made Agricultural Bio-Weapon In the Offing?
A man-made bio-weapon in the agricultural field could also be in the offing, if steps are not taken to curtail ongoing research in genetic modification of staple food plants in the US, and possibly elsewhere too. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – DARPA – in America, is in the final stages of a USD 27million programme, ‘Insect Allies’, to produce genetically-modified viruses that, “can confer traits for combating biological and environmental threats” of specific crops, by modifying their genes in the fields. The aim appears noble, and for sure, genetic modification of plants has been ongoing for some time now – BT Cotton and tomatoes being examples.
However, what casts doubts is the additional aim which is to also meet “threats from State and non-State actors,” hinting at similar concurrent research in other countries.
Objections to ‘Insect Allies’ have been expressed by bio-scientists of Max Planck Institute, Germany, who wrote in the magazine Science in September 2018, that ‘Insect Allies’ violates the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, since the dispersal of the viruses is to be done by insect vectors. It was suggested to DARPA that, to have a tight control of the area where genetic modification of the crops would be done by the viruses, the dispersal be done by spraying and not by insects – who would fly uncontrolled. The agency responded negatively stating that spraying would require a large infrastructure, an answer that does not hold, coming from the US, which has enormous monetary and infrastructural strength – thus, casting doubts on the primary aim of the project.
Another giveaway is that the targets are food-grade crops like rice, wheat, cassava and maize, with tobacco being expressly forbidden.
If it is supposed to be proof of a concept trial, surely target plants should not be staples of most countries!
Why A Genetic Engineering Experiment On Food Crops Could Go Rogue
The dangers of the ‘Insect Allies’ programme were called out in the UN BWC meeting in Geneva in August 2019, that this writer attended as part of the Max Planck Institute team. The Science article states that though there are some ‘kill switches’ in the programme, like limited life of the insect vectors, “... the program is primarily a bad idea because obvious simplifications of the work plan with already-existing technology can generate predictable and fast acting weapons, along with their means of delivery, capable of threatening virtually any crop species.”
Then there are accidents that could happen.
In September 201, an explosion occurred in a Russian bio-lab in Siberia, one of the only two in the world that store live smallpox virus. Earlier in 2009, the other lab, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention at Atlanta, US, almost had a leak when scientists taking a chemical shower after handling dangerous pathogens saw light filtering in from the decontamination chamber’s door that is supposed to be perfectly sealed.
In simple terms, a genetic engineering experiment on food crops would be almost impossible to control if it goes rogue, accidentally or deliberately.
Since no country would like to have its food security threatened, a chain reaction of others acquiring similar capability would follow; in fact, an agricultural arms race of sorts may be underway already. As a September 2019 article on ‘designer viruses’ in Spiegel International puts it, “a more fundamental issue is at stake: how forcibly should humans interfere in nature’s genetic code? How strongly should we alter plants and animals to suit our needs?”
A ‘Positive’ Fallout of COVID Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic should serve as a wake-up call for mankind. In these times of a struggle for supremacy in geo-politics, a voluntary moratorium on genetic modification of crops would be difficult due to the trust deficit existing between powerful nations. What could, perhaps, make countries see reason is the grim reality that any nation that manufactures pharmaceuticals and chemicals can make bio-weapons, if intentions are not noble – and it is a cliché that ‘intentions can change overnight.’
A positive fallout of the deadly coronavirus pandemic would be if it results in strict adherence of the Biological Weapons Convention that the international community has drafted to protect itself from disasters of the biological kind.
(The author, a retired Air Vice Marshal, graduated from the NDA in June 1975. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)