Rumours Abound Of SARS Link To BioWeapons
The Straits Times

BEIJING (AFP) -- The mounting death toll exacted by Sars in China has triggered speculation that the virus could ultimately be traced back to a leak from military bio-weapon programmes.

Although most reports favour a natural origin for Sars, a bio-weapon link should not be ruled out, according to Mr Richard Fisher, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based think-tank.

'While there is no reported evidence that Sars is indeed a weapon, there are plenty of ways that a real weapon with the properties of Sars could prove decisive in a military conflict,' he said.

Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng, in an opinion piece published in the International Herald Tribune this week, cited rumours circulating in China such as the idea 'that Sars emanated from China's biological weapons research facilities'.

Many analysts consider a link between Sars and bio-weapons far-fetched.

Ms Stephanie Lieggi, an East Asia expert at the California-based Centre for Nonproliferation Studies, said: 'I have seen nothing in recent reports that would support any connection between Sars and biological weapons.'

Another argument against the theory is the low kill ratio associated with Sars. And although it is transmitted relatively easily, it seems to be less contagious than most known viral bio-weapons, according to experts.

But it is exactly the innocuous nature of Sars that could make it militarily useful for someone wanting to sow panic and prompt political instability, Mr Fisher argued.

'A seemingly 'natural' epidemic would lessen suspicion of the main 'enemy state' by the target country and its main allies,' he said.

The theory that Sars was a leaked weapon would depend on the existence of an offensive biological weapon programme in China.

According to US intelligence sources, the People's Liberation Army does have an offensive programme, although it appears to have been scaled down over the past two decades.

The Institute of Military Medicine near Beijing has been engaged in, at the minimum, defensive research.

But overseas analysts do not know for sure whether China envisages the use of biological weapons in future wars.