08 April 2020

Covid-19, China, USA and the Tbilisi intersection

Andreea Stoian Karadeli

Last year, while lecturing on the terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction at one of NATO’s Centers of Excellence, I was emphasizing the low probability for terrorist groups to develop and use biological weapons, for several reasons: the complexity of the act, the limited access to the necessary tools and instruments, and the need for intense control over the whole situation in order not to become victims of their own deeds.

Image source: ProfiMedia

While lowering the terrorist chances, I tried also to underline that such a projection can become reality based on a variety of other causes, such as nature itself or the states. One of the officers in the room waited for the lecture to end and raised his hand to make the first comment: “A terrorist threat or not, the question should be whether we are prepared for such a projection, whether we are ready or not for a biological weapon to unleash its force and spread.” For a few moments, some of the most famous end-of -the-world film scenes combined in my mind with the image of the suicide terrorists ready to die together with their victims. It took me some time to take a deep breath and say: “only if we had invested half of our defence spending’s on the health infrastructure, I could have said that we are prepared; unfortunately, we are not ready to face such a threat”. Today, when I remember that conversation and I follow, at the same time, the terrorist groups that make the subject of my own research, I realize that what represented a very low probability last year, is now an immense opportunity for them. Our international system with the much-praised globalized society is now drowned in its own infatuation, while the nations shut their borders and struggle with “an invisible threat”. 

We all have failed to acknowledge that, disregard its source - a terrorist act, a natural cause or a laboratory experiment - the next global pandemic has never been a hypothetic option, but a reality, a part of a cyclic pattern. Experts have long warned about its threat, but governments and organizations have only mimicked the planning and they never really wanted to understand the urgency; it didn’t fit into the agenda. Today, we are facing one of our biggest fears, each of us with what it has at best - the national (!) tools and instruments. When there is no “bad guy” to blame – see ISIS, al Qaeda, and the rest – we became very good at blaming each other.

The World Health Organisation declared the Covid-19 outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) on 30 January 2020 (1) and a pandemic on 11 March 2020 (2).  Bearing in mind that the first case was identified on the 17th of November in Hubei (Wuhan), and the Chinese government was very slow in blocking the spread of the virus, many still wonder where WHO has been during this time. In the context of the Chinese New Year holiday, the situation worsened, and the virus reached cities around China and abroad. Scholars have claimed that China’s conduct with respect to Covid-19 violated the International Health Regulations, in particular the obligations of timely notification and information-sharing in Articles 6 and 7. Had China complied with these obligations, there would arguably be exponentially fewer cases of COVID-19 today. This has led another scholar to state that China “can and should be sued for the enormous damages they caused to the world”, and to warn China that “the lawyers are coming” to take revenge. While we are looking for the one to assume the responsibility, what if there is a common blame we have to agree on?


Since the COVID-19 outbreak in late December 2019, stock markets have plummeted, tourism sectors have been affected, and videos of panic buying across the globe have been circulating on social media platforms. Media scholars can compare this scenario with the infamous 1938 “War of the Worlds” radio hoax broadcast by Orson Wells that resulted in mass hysteria in the United States of America. (4) With almost 1 and a half million cases globally, which includes those who have recovered and died from the COVID-19 disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, China is now home to the least of them. Italy, France, Spain, Germany and the U.K are turned by the rapid spread of the virus into the new Hubei. The U.S. is also expecting two very hard weeks ahead. Covid-19, “the Chinese virus”, the “Wuhan virus”, “the invisible killer” has proved to be the pandemic we have been warned about, but never prepared for. Today, instead of joining forces to fight against this global problem, our international community is more divided than ever, accusing each-other for the spread of the virus.

A heated debate has developed faster than the search for a medicine or vaccine: the West points at China to blame for spreading the novel coronavirus around the world, while Iran backs the Chinese government and points to the US. It is true that people naturally look for someone or something to blame in a crisis, whether financial, health, or otherwise. Remote causes, proximate causes, underlying causes … all of them add up to hundreds and thousands and perhaps millions of interactions and influences, and you would need an artificial intelligence to work out the blame map. Among the multitude of conspiracy theory that have been spread even faster than the virus itself, there are three main subjects that may be of interest and should be followed carefully in the future. None of the three should be taken for granted, while they all invite the reader to proceed with individual research, starting with the sources provided in this article. 

First, the path taken by the virus proved an extraordinary resemblance with the Event 201 - a table-top exercise that simulated a global pandemic, which resulted from a new coronavirus (5). The program was hosted on the 18th of October by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and World Economic Forum. The invite-only event featured medical professionals, policy experts and business analysts all focused on how different institutions would respond to the onset of a deadly virus. The fictional virus — a coronavirus, in general, being a specific kind of virus — in the scenario killed 65 million people over 18 months. Joint recommendations from participants urged international cooperation both in preparing for and handling a pandemic. The Center for Health Security has hosted three pandemic simulations prior to Event 201, going back to a 2001 simulation known as Dark Winter (6). The October simulation was the first time the centre included private sector actors in its exercises, in the hopes of modelling how they might also react in such a crisis. Most of the elements in the Event 201’s simulation matches the evolution of the events, two weeks after the exercise took place, leaving many to wonder how much of a coincidence can this be. It also underlines that, although well-fit into the simulation, the discussions, measures and recommendations made during the event are rather hard to apply in reality.

Secondly, an investigative report based on a newly released FBI document authored by the Chemical and Biological Intelligence Unit of the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate (WMDD) claims that a Chinese scientist was caught in November 2018 under extremely suspicious circumstances transporting vials believed to contain the deadly MERS and SARS viruses into the United States. According to the report, “The Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate assesses foreign scientific researchers who transport undeclared and undocumented biological materials into the United States in their personal carry-on and/or checked luggage almost certainly present a US biosecurity risk.“ The report, which came out more than two months before the World Health Organization learned of a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan that turned out to be COVID-19, appears to be part of a larger FBI concern about China’s involvement with scientific research in the U.S. While the report refers broadly to foreign researchers, all three cases cited (September 2019, November 2018, May 2018) involve Chinese nationals. In the case of the suspected SARS and MERS vials, the intelligence report cites another classified document that is marked “FISA,” meaning it contains information collected under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Another case cited in the report appeared to involve flu strains, and a third was suspected E. coli (7).

Thirdly, Bulgarian journalist and Middle East correspondent Dilyana Gaytandzhieva revealed back in 2018 leaked internal documents, implicating US diplomats in the transportation of and experimenting on pathogens under diplomatic cover (8). These documents show that Pentagon scientists have been deployed to the Republic of Georgia and have been given diplomatic immunity to research deadly diseases and biting insects at the Lugar Center – the Pentagon biolaboratory in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi. According to the report, which comes as part of a documentary that was aired on Al-Mayadeen TV channel on the 20th of September 2018, the secret facility is located just 17 km from the US Vaziani military airbase in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi. The US government has spent $161 million on the Lugar Center in Tbilisi for research on deadly diseases and viruses. The report uncovered internal documents and correspondence between the Ministry of Health of Georgia and the US Embassy to Tbilisi, regarding the experiments that had been conducted at the Lugar Center. Leaked documents reveal that the US Embassy to Tbilisi transports pathogens, as well as frozen human blood, as diplomatic cargo.  A letter from the Ministry of Health of Georgia to the US Embassy in Tbilisi exempts the importation from registration as the American diplomats claim the frozen human blood is needed for research purposes in connection with an American program on Hepatitis C in Georgia. Diplomatic cargo shipments are exempt from inspection and taxes. According to instructions from The Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), which oversees and funds the laboratories, biological material for the needs of the program must be shipped as hand-carrying items to the US embassies. Furthermore, the documents revealed that biologists from the US Army Medical Research Unit-Georgia (USAMRU-G) along with private American contractors and the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) are tasked with the program at the Lugar Center. Certain zones of the laboratory are classified zones and are accessible only to American citizens with security clearance. They are accorded diplomatic immunity under the 2002 US-Georgia Agreement on defence cooperation. This military facility is just one of the many Pentagon biolaboratories in 25 countries across the world. They are funded by the Defence Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) under a $ 2.1 billion military program – Cooperative Biological Engagement Program (CBEP), and are located in former Soviet Union countries such as Georgia and Ukraine, the Middle East, South East Asia and Africa (9).

Whatever the context(s) and actor(s) of its appearance, Covid-19 has pressed the re-set button of the world as we knew it yesterday. In addition to taking prompt action to combat the spread of SARS-CoV2, governments need to step up their measures to prevent the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories related to the virus. Bearing in mind the role of the fake news in the current political power game, it is very hard to track and verify each piece of information. Not to say that the truth may depend much on the perspective where you look from.  Heads of state, senior government officials, health and medical experts have taken to social media to reach out to vast audiences using platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and live streaming to disseminate relevant information and live updates. Over the past few years, since the emergence of SARS and MERS cases, the international community has made significant, but not sufficient progress toward preparing for and mitigating the impacts of pandemics. However, the global community has not realized yet the urgent need to collaborate to develop a unified global policy to detect, report, and respond to various outbreaks. Sealing off nations or concealing information from the local and international community is not feasible anymore. Transparency and collective efforts will reform the shape and redefine the meaning of globalization again. Swift health policy action is also required to ensure sustainable health measures and preparedness globally. The upcoming years will most likely witness a surge in scholarly articles related to COVID-19 from the scientific, medical, and health fields; there shall also be an abundance of multidisciplinary research approaches and studies theorizing and analysing this epidemic from various perspectives.


  1. "Statement on the second meeting of the International Health Regulations (2005) Emergency Committee regarding the outbreak of novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV)". World Health Organization (WHO). Archived from the original on 31 January 2020.
  2.  "WHO Director-General's opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19". World Health Organization (WHO) (Press release). 11 March 2020. Archived from the original on 11 March 2020.
  3. International Health Regulations:“Article 6 Notification 1. Each State Party shall assess events occurring within its territory by using the decision instrument in Annex 2. Each State Party shall notify WHO, by the most efficient means of communication available, by way of the National IHR Focal Point, and within 24 hours of assessment of public health information, of all events which may constitute a public health emergency of international concern within its territory in accordance with the decision instrument, as well as any health measure implemented in response to those events. If the notification received by WHO involves the competency of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), WHO shall immediately notify the IAEA. 2. Following a notification, a State Party shall continue to communicate to WHO timely, accurate and sufficiently detailed public health information available to it on the notified event, where possible including case definitions, laboratory results, source and type of the risk, number of cases and deaths, conditions affecting the spread of the disease and the health measures employed; and report, when necessary, the difficulties faced and support needed in responding to the potential public health emergency of international concern. Article 7 Information-sharing during unexpected or unusual public health events If a State Party has evidence of an unexpected or unusual public health event within its territory, irrespective of origin or source, which may constitute a public health emergency of international concern, it shall provide to WHO all relevant public health information. In such a case, the provisions of Article 6 shall apply in full.”
  4.  Heyer P (2003) America under attack: a reassessment of Orson Welles’ 1938 war of the worlds broadcast. Canadian Journal of Communication 28(2): 149-165.
  5. For information on Event 201, see: http://www.centerforhealthsecurity.org/event201/,   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AoLw-Q8X174&t=231s
  6. John Hopkins Center for Health Security, Dark Winter Exercise: http://www.centerforhealthsecurity.org/our-work/events-archive/2001_dark-winter/index.html
  7. Yahoo News https://news.yahoo.com/suspected-sars-virus-and-flu-found-in-luggage-fbi-report-describes-chinas-biosecurity-risk-144526820.html; Paul Crespo, American Action News https://americanactionnews-com.cdn.ampproject.org/c/s/americanactionnews.com/foreign-affairs/fbi-intelligence-report-warned-of-chinese-biosecurity-risk/?amp ; Tyler Durden, Zero Hedge https://www.zerohedge.com/health/fbi-report-border-agents-stopped-chinese-biologist-carrying-viable-sars-mers-viruses-us
  8. Dilyana Gaytandzhieva is a Bulgarian investigative journalist, Middle East correspondent and founder of Arms Watch. Over the last two years she has published a series of revealing reports on weapons supplies to terrorists in Syria and Iraq. Her current work is focused on documenting war crimes and illicit arms exports to war zones around the world. The main source for the information can be found here: http://dilyana.bg/the-pentagon-bio-weapons/http://armswatch.com/the-pentagon-bio-weapons/?__cf_chl_jschl_tk__=bcee75b45c39c13650d35ac5354f0b369c4f5329-1586303899-0-AZ4NBRINKUWy5MiX_3vusoE3Vks8r13Gm3qTUoSfZxaEwf3Yw1zWWG_r1kXsWSA8_yCzOJ1GLnMnPVjELks-JeUv3EKx4s19dr21BogoqP5gbYxPN-8mqLkSKLiMATviSjkgGTohxjURWfzgJB1RMC4-3NKiJteWQHT5x6sDjI_Sfp_DBUoUFvxcR5xewtiv_k605NO2vTxvKMgXjWaM4vokNgV4rJFfQwBY9xMwSeisNK6-qoNgt2f_aH-9WYLIuPT7r_XsOEd3uzrX78dkCj93jAR8SI347HHd123kWOEdU0IhbWQrpPVtN5HIV1nY5A ; http://www.free21.org/us-diplomats-involved-in-trafficking-of-human-blood-and-pathogens-for-secret-military-program/?lang=en
  9. Map Pentagon Biolaboratories in 25 Countries, http://dilyana.bg/the-pentagon-bio-weapons/.