Australian media report on 'weaponising' of SARS renews tensions between Canberra, Beijing

·3-min read

A report in an Australian media outlet alleging that Chinese officials discussed 'weaponising' SARS in 2015 has sparked fresh tensions between Beijing and Canberra.

At the centre of the controversy is a purported document obtained by The Australian newspaper titled 'The Unnatural Origin of SARS and New Species of Man-Made Viruses as Genetic Bioweapons'.

The document shows the Chinese officials describing SARS coronaviruses as heralding a "new era of genetic weapons."

In response, Chinese propaganda outlet Global Times dismissed the allegation, claiming that the report portrayed a book openly on sale as a 'leaked' document and twisted its contents.

This controversy has become the latest flashpoint between the two countries in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Allegations on 'weaponising' SARS

According to the report by The Australian, Chinese officials said that bio-weapons could be produced at "0.05 percent of the cost of traditional weapons"

The purported document shows the Chinese officials describing SARS coronaviruses as heralding a "new era of genetic weapons" that can be "artificially manipulated into an emerging human disease virus, then weaponised and unleashed in a way never seen before".

The authors of the document included Lee Feng, former deputy director of China's Bureau of Epidemic Prevention, and Xu Dezhong, the former chief of China's SARS Epidemic Analysis Expert Group, the report alleged.

An article by quoted Peter Jennings, the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), as saying, "I think this is significant because it clearly shows that Chinese scientists were thinking about military application for different strains of the coronavirus and thinking about how it could be deployed...It begins to firm up the possibility that what we have here is the accidental release of a pathogen for military use."

Jennings also remarked that the document may explain why China has been so reluctant for outside investigations into the origins of COVID-19.

However, Chinese propaganda outlet Global Times has stoutly denied the allegations, claiming that the article has twisted the contests of a book by a military doctor. It has quoted Chen Hong, a professor and director of the Australian Studies Center at East China Normal University, as saying, "An academic book that explores bioterrorism and possibilities of viruses being used in warfare was interpreted as a conspiracy theory by The Australian, which deliberately and malignantly intends to invent pretexts to smear China."

The book reportedly suggests that the SARS epidemic during 2002 and 2004 in China originated through an unnatural way of genetic modification originating from outside the country. "The book alleges with evidence how biological weapons labs abroad successfully transferred the virus to civets or other mammals, and how the animals were brought into markets in southern China at the time," the Global Times' report notes.

The report comes in the backdrop of heightened tensions between China and Australia over a number of issues. Last year, Australia pushed for an independent review of the origins and spread of the pandemic, including the response of the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The move drew sharp criticism from China, which has accused Australian lawmakers of taking instructions from the United States.

Last month, the Australian federal government cancelled two deals signed by the state of Victoria with China's multibillion-dollar 'Belt and Road' construction initiative.

More recently, Beijing has said that it will "indefinitely suspend all activities" under the China-Australia Strategic Economic Dialogue, according to a statement by the Cabinet's planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission.

China had also blocked imports of most Australian goods last year after the latter country's government called for the investigation into the coronavirus.

In this context, the media report accusing Chinese officials of discussing ways to weaponise SARS is likely to only deepen tensions between the two countries.

With inputs from AP

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