The world of biological warfare is a nasty one, that much is for sure.
Even though most major nations swore off such warfare decades ago, defending against disease (natural, or weaponised) may have been China’s motivation for developing potentially cataclysmic strains of influenza.
Recently, Chinese scientists came under heavy criticism for designing new strains of bird flu that could potentially contain a mortality rate as high as 20%. The research, published May 2 in the journal Science, has been described as displaying the “appalling irresponsibility” of scientists and the government alike.
But it’s possible that China is simply trying to protect itself from pandemic-causing diseases — whether natural or man-made. By developing the virus, they believe they can prepare vaccines and treatments to defend against it.
Others believe different: “The virological basis of this work is not strong. It is of no use for vaccine development and the benefit in terms of surveillance for new flu viruses is oversold,” Professor Wain-Hobson, an expert in virology, told The Independent.
There’s definitely an undercurrent of fear that China would be very vulnerable to a bio-attack. Following the most recent outbreak of influenza in China, a top-level Chinese Air Force officer outright accused the U.S. of using biological weapons — of essentially planting the virus in China.
Thought is as infectious as disease: it’s probable this officer isn’t the only one thinking of bio weapons. Government officials are well aware how easily an infectious disease could devastate China, even if it is of natural origins.
Due in part to a government regulation free environment, and in part to very dense population centres, the spread of infectious disease has become a growing concern for Chinese authorities.
Pile on to these weaknesses the fledgling establishment of factors that contribute to vast population mobility — high speed trains, manufacturing jobs — and the country becomes particularly weakened against infectious disease.
A report out of the centre For Strategic and International Studies in March 2009 summed it up well:
In earlier eras, when China’s population was largely stationary and problems related to sanitation were less prevalent and more localised, containment of spreading diseases could be more easily achieved. No More. These days, Chinese are more mobile and their environment is more hazardous. This is an increasingly target-rich environment for infectious diseases.
The CSIS study did say that China’s bets with medical development could go one of two ways: If they’re successful, they can “short circuit and international spread of disease” and also contribute to the global health care system.
But “the record of containment in labs like this is not reassuring. They are taking it upon themselves to create human-to-human transmission of very dangerous viruses. It’s appallingly irresponsible,” Lord May of Oxford told The Independent.
If they lose the bet, the CSIS report says the world will “almost certainly” see “new strains of disease.”
Playing with fire, yes, but then again, fire was itself a revolution for man thousands of years ago.
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