Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 8

The vast weight of reporting thus far on the origins of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) points to a mutation of the coronavirus, which causes the common cold. This view holds that the virus most likely jumped from animals to humans somewhere in China’s Guangdong Province. But there are compelling reasons, however unsettling, to at least ask whether there might be any linkage between SARS and China’s biological warfare efforts.

To be sure, the dominant scientific opinion on the source of SARS– confirmed by the World Health Organization on April 16–points to a strain of the coronavirus thought to have originated in animals. The earliest victims of SARS are reported to have been people in Guangdong who either ate or handled game or fowl. On April 16 the Associated Press reported that the genetic sequencing of the virus conducted in Hong Kong “proves conclusively that it comes from animals.” This report quotes University of Hong Kong microbiologist Malik Peiris saying, “Nature has been the terrorist throwing up this virus.”


But can this be stated definitively while the precise animal source remains unknown? During an April 17 press briefing, the director of the U.S. Center for Disease Control, Dr. Julie Gerberding, stated that the genome of the SARS virus “didn’t look like much of any of the viruses we already had in our reference strain collection.”

Even if it is a natural virus, the rapidity of the ongoing global spread of SARS illustrates the threat posed by modern biological warfare (BW). By contrast, chemical weapons like nerve gasses kill in a small locality and can wash away. Deadly viruses like smallpox have long been turned into weapons of mass destruction by the former Soviet Union, and perhaps by al Qaeda-linked terrorists. While China suffered horribly from Japan’s chemical and biological warfare activities during World War II, Communist China has since built defensive and offensive chemical warfare capabilities. Even though China denies it has biological warfare capabilities, the U.S. government maintains that “China is believed to possess an offensive biological warfare capability based on technology developed prior to its accession to the BWC [Biological Warfare Convention].” [1] It may therefore be unwise to rule out human error.


In Russia at least, there is one scientist who has suggested a link between SARS and errant biological warfare activities. On April 3, the Russian Interfax-AVN news service quoted Sergei Kolesnikov, a member of the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences and a State Duma lawmaker, as saying: “The propagation of the atypical pneumonia [SARS] may well be caused by a leak of a combat virus grown in Asian bacteriological weapons labs.” Later, on April 12, Kolesnikov told a conference in the city of Irkutsk that the virus was a mixture of measles and mumps–one that could not occur naturally. “We can only get that in a laboratory,” he was quoted as saying by RIA Novosti news agency. And he repeated his suspicion of an “accidental leak.”

A fear of accidents related to bioweapons is not new among Russians–including those aware of China’s programs. The former Soviet Union maintained a large chemical and bioweapon complex that employed a total of 60,000-70,000 people and developed offensive biological weapons from anthrax, plague, and smallpox. The most infamous Russian bioweapon disaster occurred in 1979 in the city of Sverdlovsk, where a small amount of leakage from an anthrax weapon at a Soviet defense ministry facility is estimated to have killed between 105 and 1,000 Russians.

Ken Alibek is a former first deputy director of Biopreparat, a Soviet-era concern that produced bioweapons. In his 1999 book Biohazard, he noted Soviet intelligence reports about a possible incident in which China experienced a leak of biological weapons:

“In northwestern China, satellite photos detected what appeared to be a large fermenting plant and a biocontainment lab close to a nuclear testing ground. Intelligence sources found evidence of two epidemics of hemorrhagic fever in the area in the late 1980s, where these diseases were previously unknown. Our analyst concluded that they were caused by an accident in a lab where Chinese scientists were weaponizing viral diseases.” [2]


Of course, Russian suspicion of a bioweapon accident in China does not of itself prove any relationship to SARS. But such suspicions exist because the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) maintains defensive and offensive chemical–and very likely–biowarfare capabilities. China acceded to the Biological Warfare Convention in 1984 and regularly denies that it has biological warfare weapons. But China does declare that it has research facilities devoted to “defensive” biological warfare. And a possible interest in biowarfare is, at the least, demonstrated by the large number of articles in PLA military medical journals on viruses like Equine Encephalitis, plague, tularemia, and cholera. In addition, Alibek refers to Russian reports suggesting that Russian biowarfare specialists may be trying to sell their knowledge to China. More recently, the Washington Post reported that South African biological warfare experts, proficient in making genetically altered bioweapons, have paid “extended visits” to China. [3]

To defend against Nuclear-Biological-Chemical (NBC) attack, the PLA maintains an Anti-Chemical Corps that is reported to have 46,000 troops. In terms of total troop numbers, China is said to have a higher ratio of chemical defense troops than North Korea. [4] In September of 2002 an article in a PLA journal, Beijing Guofang, noted that China’s national biological warfare defense rested under the National People’s Air Defense Office, which is led by the State Defense Mobilization Committee. But the article criticized the lack of coordination between military and civilian officials in this area.

The most widely noted indication of the PLA’s offensive biological warfare (BW) capabilities involves a possible BW manufacturing facility near the nuclear testing grounds of Xinjiang. Both Soviet intelligence and Alibek have referred to it. Then there is perhaps the most extensive open-source review of the PLA’s chemical and biological warfare capabilities, which was sponsored by the CIA’s National Intelligence Council in 1999. In this review, Eric Croddy of the Monterey Institute’s Center for Nonproliferation Studies reported that a Taiwanese source had told him “that he [the source] felt certain a BW facility of some sort did exist in Xinjiang Province.” Croddy concludes: “China probably is withholding much information about its BW research, although such research primarily may be defensive in nature.” [5]

Although it might be tempting to give China the benefit of the doubt, that could prove dangerous. China’s long record of failing to honor arms control commitments justifies a skeptical attitude toward its willingness to meet commitments in the area biological warfare. The Chinese leadership’s paranoia, which led it to suppress reporting of and information about SARS starting last November, justly raises questions as to whether China may also be hiding a military-related disaster. Indeed, many Chinese harbored exactly this suspicion before the advent of more truthful reporting on SARS. But even if this suspicion is unfounded, there is another disturbing question that needs to be answered. Given that SARS has devastated China more than any other country, why hasn’t the PLA, which is capable of deploying tremendous resources, assumed the role of global leader in isolating, detecting and seeking a vaccine for SARS?


It can be concluded beyond doubt that China has had a long-term interest in maintaining modern defensive biological warfare capabilities. The PLA also has a large scientific establishment that is devoted to researching and developing defenses against biological weapons–an effort that confers upon it the capability to make such weapons. It is thus necessary to continue to monitor China’s BW program. As of late April, it remains impossible to conclude from the reported scientific research that the SARS virus is related to a man-made, or indeed, a military program. The key remaining question in this context involves the precise animal origin of this virus. If that animal source cannot be determined, then Kolesnikov’s suggestion that it is man made deserves investigation.

1. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Proliferation: Threat and Response, January 2001, p. 15.

2. Ken Alibek, with Steven Handelman, Biohazard, New York: Random House, 1999, p. 273.

3. Joby Warrick, “Biotoxins Fall Into Private Hands, Global Risk Seen In S. African Poisons,” The Washington Post, April 21, 2003; Page A01.

4. Kanwa News, March 30, 2003.

5. Eric Croddy, “Chinese Chemical and Biological Warfare (CBW) Capabilities,” in China and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Implications for the United States, National Intelligence Council, 5 November 1999.

Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is a Senior Fellow with the Jamestown Foundation and the Managing Editor of China Brief.