Raina MacIntyre, Dark Winter, An Insider’s Guide to Pandemics and Biosecurity, Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2022.
Can we relax now? Is the COVID-19 pandemic over? Or is it still an existential global threat requiring stringent measures? Is worse to come? Will successor viruses mutate faster than we can find, test and manufacture vaccines for them? Or are there simpler, speedier solutions that we should know about? These questions and much more are addressed by Sydney epidemiologist Raina MacIntyre in her carefully researched, accessible and even entertaining account of SARS-CoV-2, the viruses that preceded it and those that may follow.
In terms of immediate policy in the face of such pandemics, MacIntyre favours early prevention, highly effective masks, ventilation and vaccination over delayed diagnostics and rushed containment programs, and explains why. She says that Australia responded correctly to COVID-19 with the provision of personal protective equipment , testing and contact tracing, but was late in supplying vaccines to contain the first wave and the successor strains that were soon to arrive. No viral infection ever controlled itself without a vaccination program, and ‘immunity debt’—the notion that preventing infection is a waste of effort and money—she dismisses as pseudo-science. Obsessive hand-washing and ‘deep cleaning’, however, were a false narrative.
More generally, MacIntyre consults the history of scientific research and raises questions about the interests involved in scientific research and the politics of the pandemic. In Australia and elsewhere, she says, the response to COVID-19 was politicised, data ignored and public health often devalued. Here she is more forthright and critical than in her interviews at the height of the pandemic, when the Australian public came to know her as a regular and thoughtful commentator.
In epidemiology, MacIntyre says, not everything is as it seems. She mistrusts some of her colleagues who put their reputations and grant applications ahead of scientific evidence and public health. And she doesn’t accept the view of some that China was the sole source of the pandemic, or that it was unknown before December 2019. She shows that blame for COVID-19 was quickly directed at China despite similar infections having been reported earlier in Italy, Spain and France. Trump’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, made much of a 2015 book by Chinese military scientists to push opinion in this direction. China, he reported, had considered manipulating a coronavirus as a potential biological weapon for ‘World War III’, speculating that SARS-CoV ‘may have man-made origin’ [sic].i But it was more complex than this. We now know that US and other Western government agencies were funding research into coronaviruses in China, not for a Third World War but for potential vaccine production, and this was, in this regard, a typical example of international scientific collaboration potentially mixed up with corporate interests. As MacIntyre notes, Moderna and AstraZeneca have made huge profits from vaccines, mostly paid for by governments, and Moderna’s French owner has long associations with the Chinese leadership.MacIntyre is aware of the intimate relationship between medical science, the pharmaceutical industry and governments, and she reports various events that present as uncanny precursors to the pandemic. Well before COVID-19 emerged, a pandemic simulation, ‘Event 201’, was held in New York, funded by Open Philanthropy, an organisation supporting ‘affordable molecular diagnostics’, and by Sherlock Biosciences, which patented the CRISPR SARS-CoV-2 kit, the first FDA-authorised diagnostic test for the virus.ii Sherlock also makes CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology. Macintyre calls her book Dark Winter, recalling the Pentagon’s high-level war game of June 2001 whose participants included neo-conservative politicians, officials and media commentators. The scenario anticipated smallpox being introduced into the United States by al-Qaeda or Saddam Hussein, with defecting Russian scientists delivering smallpox cultures to Iran, Iraq and North Korea (Bush’s ‘axis of evil’), and Afghanistan. The study concluded that the ensuing crisis brought on by such a scenario could justify curtailment of civil liberties in the United States.Some members of the Dark Winter team went on to take part in three US ‘Crimson Contagion’ exercises, which from January to August 2019 prophetically simulated a crippling pandemic in America that originated as influenza in China. ‘Event 201’ had proposed a novel coronavirus outbreak in Brazil, transmitted from bats to pigs to humans, which eventually became transmissible between people, leading to a pandemic.
The designers of these scenarios were not proposing human intervention in creating such a virus, but, as MacIntyre shows, they had long known it was possible. With uncanny anticipation, the exercise was run in New York on 18 October 2019, the very day the World Military Games began in Wuhan, where many competitors caught an influenza-like virus. The American team left from and returned to Seattle, where the first US cases of COVID-19 were reported. As Bob Woodward recounts in his book Rage, the Chinese Foreign Minister accused US service personnel of introducing the coronavirus to Wuhan, while President Trump claimed China had deliberately let it spread to the athletes.iiiMacIntyre and her UNSW colleague David Heslop designed Exercise Pacific Eclipse, a scenario in which they joined 200 people from several countries in Washington in January 2020 to test allied preparedness for a bio-terror attack with engineered smallpox, supported by the US Indo-Pacific Command. Then, to MacIntyre’s astonishment, it seemed to come true: the date was that of the reported outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan. But where the virus actually came from would become a highly politicised question.
A blizzard of opinion, some of it fanciful, about possible links between SARS-CoV-2 and biological weapons blew through the United States. For some it prompted recourse to the history of modern scientific experimentation. Some recalled that during the Second World War chemical weapons were tested on African Americans, Puerto Ricans and Japanese Americans to discover different racial responses. Some remembered Ronald Reagan sending chemical and biological weapons to Iraq for use against Iran in the 1970s, which undergirded accusations in 2003 that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction—the allied pretext for the invasion of Iraq. Others pointed out that research on viruses as potential biological weapons had been done for decades in many US locations, involving unsuspecting human subjects, often by the Military Research Institute for Infectious Diseases.
As MacIntyre recalls, the United Kingdom sprayed anthrax on the sea in the Caribbean and on Gruinard Island, which was irreversibly contaminated. In Dorset, civilians were sprayed with biological agents, as were passengers in trains, and between 1939 and 1989 over 3000 men from the armed forces were exposed to nerve gas at Porton Down, the secret defence laboratory near Salisbury. A young soldier’s death there in an unacknowledged experiment with Sarin was covered up for fifty 50 years.
When the making of biological and chemical weapons was outlawed, in 1972 and 1977 respectively, much research was driven underground. Boris Yeltsin admitted two decades after the fact that the ‘natural’ anthrax that had leaked in a 1979 incident at Sverdlovsk was manufactured anthrax K64. Secrecy prevailed after an explosion at the Vector Institute in Novosibirsk in 2019 emitted smallpox, and after brucellosis escaped from a laboratory in China in August 2017. Programs to produce biological weapons specifically to sterilise black African men and reduce the birth rate had been run in South Africa and Rhodesia in the 1970s and 1980s, with American and British scientists taking part.
A common defence of chemical and biological weapons research has been that it is undertaken for the purpose of creating antidotes to natural diseases. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Anthony Fauci of the US National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases and National Institutes of Health (NIH) often said so. His agencies supplied China with US funding through Dr Peter Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance to support Shi Zhengli’s research at the Wuhan Institute of Technology on bat coronaviruses. It apparently enabled the creation of SARS-CoV-2 with ‘gain of function’ capacity to attack humans. In 2015, Daszac warned in Nature of the capacity to ‘move a virus from a candidate emerging pathogen to a clear and present danger’, although he has continued to defend the view that COVID-19’s origin was in nature, not a laboratory. In 2015, Dr Shi and Ralph Baric of the University of North Carolina co-published research stating that they had created a chimeric SARS-like virus that could replicate in humans. ‘You can engineer a virus without leaving a trace’, Dr Baric bragged to an audience in Italy in 2020.ivScientists who wrote that SARS-CoV-2 showed signs of creation in a laboratory later withdrew their opinions.v They included award-winning Professor Edward Holmes of the University of Sydney, who had worked with Dr Shi at WIV. When Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University accused the NIH of withholding data about the gain of function research done at WIV with US support, MacIntyre says he was attacked and ‘deplatformed’. MacIntyre’s point is that the context of the COVID-19 pandemic is complex, and the politics of scientific research so murky that definitive answers are not always possible. In epidemiology, she observes, often a variety of hypotheses can be supported and the narrative manipulated. The stakes are high, and she worries that the consequences for ‘high-value individuals’ who challenge the orthodoxy can even be lethal. There’s a long record of suspicious deaths among scientists working in chemical and biological weapons research.While many Australian virologists discount any possible connection between the pandemic and engineered coronaviruses, MacIntyre’s intelligence and law enforcement contacts suspect malign biological weapons operations. She again points to the history of viral outbreaks. She theorises that the Ebola virus which spread after 1976, SARS-1 in 2003 and MERS-CoV in 2012 were not zoonotic—originating in nature and passed from animals to humans—but were deliberately given gain of function capacity to attack humans. She notes that smallpox and Ebola have both been synthesised from scratch in the United States and Canada, showing that it could be done. MacIntyre argues that SARS-CoV-2’s unique features could only have been engineered in a laboratory, and that it either escaped or was released deliberately. The question is where and by whom.
Error and terror are the stark, alternative possibilities of this development. Gain of function can turn a virus into a weapon of mass destruction. The origins of COVID-19 are unlikely to be found soon, if ever, no matter how independent those who inquire are. MacIntyre believes that the vested interests in suppressing information about chemical and biological weapons research are great, and that no clear evidence has reached the global public. The consequences, which include failure to prevent mutations and further pandemics, are potentially disastrous.vi Following the deadly track of the virus and responses to the pandemic in the context of science’s less benign associations, MacIntyre concludes that some lives are considered expendable, and that, she believes, threatens human survival.vii
i Mike Pompeo and Miles Yu, ‘China’s reckless labs put the world at risk’, Wall Street Journal, 23February 2021. https://www.wsj.com/articles/chinas-reckless-labs-put-the-world-at-risk-11614102828.
Xu Dezhong, and others, The Unnatural Origin of SARS and New Species of Manmade Viruses as Genetic Bioweapons, Airforce Medical University, 2015. Available on Amazon, Twitter, WeChat. Anthony Galloway, Eryk Bagshaw, ‘The $10 tome that keeps Wuhan theory bubbling’, SMH, 13 May 2021: 1, 16.
iii Bob Woodward, Rage, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020: 291, 332.
iv Baric, cit. Sharri Markson. ‘Scrutiny of the inscrutable remains’, Australian, 30 August 2021: 1, 4.