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While searching around on the news today, I found this article, which alleges that a Chinese paper published in 2015, titled "The Unnatural Origin of SARS and New Species of Man-Made Viruses as Genetic Bioweapons", details how coronaviruses can be weaponized, and seems to suggest a conclusion that contradicts The WHO's report result that COVID-19 most likely got transmitted from animal to human. https://www.ibtimes.com/explosive-report-says-chinese-scientists-discussed-weaponizing-coronavirus-2015-3196106

The document, which lists 18 authors including People’s Liberation Army scientists and weapons experts, talks about how the virus can be "artificially manipulated into an emerging human­-disease virus, then weaponized and unleashed in a way never seen before."

The International Business Times goes on to quote Peter Jennings of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute:

Peter Jennings, the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), told News.com.au that the document is as close to a "smoking gun" as we’ve got.

“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 is also paraphrased as saying that it explains why the Chinese were so hesitant to let outside investigators in.

I began to be skeptical about this publication when the article said that Robert Potter, a supposed cybersecurity expert, verified that the paper was genuine. Why would a cybersecurity expert be qualified to make such a call? Also, all the news outlets that reported this rank as "mixed fact reporting" on Media Bias Fact Check. However, all of my go-to fact-checkers don't have anything to say about this specific case yet.

Is this paper really the "smoking gun" evidence for SARS-CoV-2 being "the accidental release of a pathogen for military use" that (according to the article) Peter Jennings claims it to be?

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    We need to clear up what the claim is here, and defocus from the speculation about motivations and how we should feel.
    – Oddthinking
    May 11 at 1:05
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    Welcome to Skeptics! Please focus the question to be about the facts. If you want to know whether SARS-COV-2 was weaponised in a lab, ask that (check for duplicates). If you want to know whether SARS-COV-2 was leaked from a lab, ask that. If you want to know if the paper is authentic, ask that.
    – Oddthinking
    May 11 at 2:19
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    FTWT, a quote from the Independent's coverage: "The Chinese state outlet [Global Times] quoted Chen Hong, a professor and director of the Australian Studies Center at East China Normal University, as saying that while the book is an academic enquiry into bioterrorism and possibilities of viruses being used in warfare, The Australian deliberately misinterpreted it. The main thrust of the book, according to the Global Times, is in fact that the 2002 and 2004 SARS epidemics in China originated from biological weapon labs abroad."
    – Fizz
    May 11 at 7:38
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    And (searching for Xu's name) one can find the accusations in plain English in a 2014 paper!! pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24985597 It seems the book was expansion or extended version of this 2014 paper. There's actually open-access full text here: journals.lww.com/cmj/fulltext/2014/07050/…
    – Fizz
    May 11 at 7:40
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    The 2014 paper in English in the CMJ was only mildly less aggressive (no obvious accusations levelled at the West) but clearly says "SARS CoV has an unnatural origin"... which of course is not really thought to be the case by almost everyone else. However it's otherwise not far from what the Chinese "wolf warrior" diplomats have been claiming about Covid-19 as well... namely that it didn't (naturally) originate in China.
    – Fizz
    May 11 at 7:47
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I interpreted the question to be 'Is it true that this book is an evidence of premeditation, thus adding legitimacy to the theory that China made COVID-19 as a bio weapon based on SARS CoV?'

My conclusion is this book is not an evidence of premeditation because..

  1. The content of the book and the intention of the author is different from what was claimed by the news article.
  2. This book received little academic attention and mixed domestic review, thus making it unlikely to be an evidence of premeditation for a large scale biowarfare operation that would involve the entire nation.
  3. The organization whose executive made the claim of premeditation is known to be politically biased.

Point 1: The content of the book and the intention of the author is different from what was claimed by the news article.

The original claim seems to suggest that this is a research paper about how China can utilize the potential of CoV to engineer bio weapons.

Quote the claim:

“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,” said Jennings.

I don't think it is the case. After researching into this book, I personally think it is written to support the author's view that CoV is the result of the military application of bio-warfare by foreign force, not exploring its implementation by domestic government. Multiple other domestic reviewers also share the same opinion after reading the book. (More details in section two)

No need to find a cyber security expert to verify its existence, you just need a helpful Chinese friend :)

The book in full is available here:

https://gnews.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/%E9%9D%9E%E5%85%B8%E9%9D%9E%E8%87%AA%E7%84%B6%E8%B5%B7%E6%BA%90%E5%92%8C%E4%BA%BA%E5%88%B6%E4%BA%BA%E6%96%B0%E7%A7%8D%E7%97%85%E6%AF%92%E5%9F%BA%E5%9B%A0%E6%AD%A6%E5%99%A8-1.pdf

The author's name is 徐德忠, and the book's name is 非典非自然起源和人制人新种病毒基因武器.

According to Baidu Baike (basically Baidu's wikipedia), this is the summary of the book:

本书首先告诉了读者传染病流行过程和基因武器型新发传染病出现的原因,其次介绍了何谓生物武器、生物分子进化和系统发育、当代基因(人制人新种病原体和致病基因)武器及其施放、现在自然界和人群中已无SARS冠状病毒及其原因、非典病毒非自然起源的流行特性和临床特性之证据、非典病毒的逆向进化及其非自然起源,最后作者旁征博引,既多方面说明了国际上对“SARS CoV的非自然起源”的态度和看法,又驳斥了国际某顶级杂志关于“中华菊头蝠为非典病毒(SARS-CoV)的贮存宿主”的错误学术观点,也有‘人感染H7N9禽流感分布异常及其异常起源之可能’ 转载”,系统描述了当时人感染H7N9禽流感流行病学之反常及其病原体分子病毒学的有限证据。本书各章节所引的实例或逻辑推理可能重复,其均出自不同的目的,说明不同的学术规律;在强调其重要性加深了读者印象的同时,突出了主题,便于读者领悟本书之宗旨。

Translation from me, a layman:

At first, this book explained the phases in the spread of an infectious disease and why disease result from genetic weapon could appear. Then it goes through the definition of biological weapon, molecular evolution and phylogenetics; of modern genetic weapon (artificial pathogen and pathological gene) and their implementation. Elaborate why SARS is no longer present in the nature and the general population. The author then presented the evidence supporting theory of unnatural origin of SARS including spreading characteristics and clinical characteristics . It further explored the CoV's reverse evolution and its unnatural origin.

At last, through various references, the author not only outlined the international attitude and opinion on the theory of SARS being artificial, but also rebutted the incorrect academic opinion of a certain international journal on how the Chinese rufous horseshoe bat is the natural host of SARS-CoV. This book also includes the reprint of 'the abnormal spread of H7N9 and its possible artificial origin'. The reprint systematically explained the limited evidence on the abnormal epidemiology of H7N9 and the virology of its pathogen molecule.

Instance evidence or deduction presented in the chapters may be reused at times for different purpose, illustrating different academic standard. While emphasizing the importance (of evidence and deduction) and create a vivid impression on the reader, they also serve to highlight the central topic to make it easier for the reader to understand.

Some Context

In the aftermath of SARS, there were speculations within China about how the SARS was a genetic weapon made by the US specifically targeting the Asian genetic features. The supporter of this theory (often layman themselves) often cited the statistics of CoV infection rate in Eastern Asian vs Caucasians.

Wikipedia on this...

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SARS_conspiracy_theory

This book was mentioned in the above Wikipedia page in Chinese:

2015年,中国著名军事医学家徐德忠、李锋出版《非典非自然起源和人制人新种病毒基因武器》一书,再次阐述了SARS可能是非自然起源的这一观点,并认为某特征基因“不可能自然存在”[5]。

In 2015, the famous military medical researcher Xu Dezhong and Li Feng published '非典非自然起源和人制人新种病毒基因武器', further iterated the idea of SARS being artificial and how certain characteristic gene cannot be natural in origin.

Point 2: This book received little academic attention and mixed domestic review, thus making it unlikely to be an evidence of premeditation for a large scale biowarfare operation that would involve the entire nation.

The original claim seems to suggest this book is some high profile study that is secretive and important, made by top scientists.

Quote from the claim

A'leaked' document allegedly written by Chinese scientists and health officials in 2015 discussed the weaponization of SARS coronavirus...

"It emerged in the last few years ... they (China) will almost certainly try to remove it now it's been covered."

I argue that it was neither 'leaked' nor secretive, one google search can find the entire copy of the book in PDF. One Baidu search (within China's firewall) can also get you links to Baidu cloud drive containing the whole book. The book is written by a epidemiologist professor who is at the end of his career due to old age against both domestic and international academic consensus with very opinionated views. The book only involves 16 people in total, everyone's name, title and background are clearly listed on page 4 with no effort made to hide anything. Some of which are university lecturer and professor.

Here are two reviews of the book: (in Chinese)

https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/347890903 (written on 2021-01-29)

https://user.guancha.cn/main/content?id=233285 (written on 2020-01-29)

Both reviews pointed out to the 'certain foreign country' in suspect being the US.

The second review contains the following:

他写作本书的目的是告诉大家,世界并不太平,某些别有用心的国家可能突破医学伦理的底线,制造出令我们防不胜防的武器。

但是徐教授毕竟是一位流行病学家,而不是病毒学家。《非典非自然起源和人制人新种病毒基因武器》一书也仅仅提供了一些疑点,没有关键技术的“实锤”,就像是一部开放结局的电影,留给读者想象的空间。

此书编纂时SARS已经销声匿迹将近10年,学界普遍对SARS起源达成了共识。徐教授也已经70多岁高龄,正处于职业生涯的末期,他的激进观点也不可能被国内外学界认可。这部著作基本上是徐教授利用个人努力编写、出版的,因为与共识差距较大,并没有掀起太大的波澜。

...The author wanted to convey to the reader that the world is not as peaceful as we may like to think. Certain nations with malicious intention could breach the medical ethic principle and produce weapons that we cannot defend against.

But Professor Xu is an epidemiologist and not an virologist after all. This book only voiced points of suspicion and not technical facts that are enough to definitively prove those suspicions. It is like an open ended movie for the readers to interpret.

This book was written 10 years after SARS has ceased. The academic society has since reached a consensus on the origin of SARS. Professor Xu is already 70, he is at the end of his career. His militant ideas are unlikely to be accepted by the domestic and international academic society. This book was pretty much written and published by Professor Xu alone. As it deviates a lot from the common consensus, it saw little impact.

The above review is fairly gentle on its criticism. However, it is not the case here:

https://book.douban.com/subject/31716230/comments/ (Douban is a Chinese review site for books, tv series, movies etc...)

This book was rated 6.8/10 over 37 ratings.

Some readers voiced disapproval over how the author seemed to be quite opinionated and mixed his personal sentiment with facts to suggest that a certain country is behind it all. (帝国主义亡我心不死, the imperialist (basically the US) always wants to eradicate us), some criticized the handling and presentation of data and logic. But there are also some think the author may be correct.

The review with the highest thumb up thinks the professor's suspicion is reasonable. (TOO LONG TO TRANSLATE :( )

The review with the second highest thumb up:

作者作为军医当然有防范潜在威胁的必要,合理的怀疑可以有,但是主编能否做到就事论事,既然自己的理论实证不足,那就更不要用履历和感情渲染气氛。武汉病毒研究所石正丽团队在2017年,也就是此专著发表后,追溯到了病毒的源头是云南山洞里的蝙蝠。

As a military doctor, it's reasonable for the author to be on alert over potential threat. It is perfectly understandable to hold reasonable skepticism. However, could the author be more objective? If there isn't enough evidence to support one's theory, one should take extra steps to avoid using one's career experience and personal sentiment to blur the picture. Shi Zhenli's team from the Wuhan Virology Research Center already traced the origin of CoV to the bats from the caves of Yunnan in 2017, after this book was published.

Point 3: The organization whose executive made the claim of premeditation is known to be politically biased.

The article OP linked heavily quoted the executive of ASPI, Peter Jennings. After making a little research into ASPI, it seems ASPI hold a very anti-China stance and receive partial fund from foreign government.

https://www.aspi.org.au/about-aspi/funding (contains 17% undisclosed overseas government agency funding)

https://www.afr.com/policy/foreign-affairs/the-think-tank-behind-australia-s-changing-view-of-china-20200131-p53wgp

(Here it is alleged that ASPI receives $450,000 from the US State Department, although ASPI dispute that it only receives half as much from the US government. AFR is apparently slightly right biased according to media bias check)

In the same report, it is written that:

But ASPI, which is funded by the Department of Defence, foreign governments and military contractors, has also been accused of fomenting anti-China hysteria, to the alleged benefit of its benefactors.

Former NSW premier Bob Carr has accused it of pumping out a “one-sided, pro-American view of the world”. Veteran foreign editor Tony Walker has slammed its "dystopian worldview" which "leaves little room for viewing China as a potential partner". "It lacks integrity and brings shame to Australia," says retired former DFAT chief and ex-Qantas CEO John Menadue. “I see it as very much the architect of the China threat theory in Australia”, adds ex-ambassador to China turned Beijing-based business consultant Geoff Raby.

Conclusion

By the above points, I believe the original claim doesn't stand because it is based on shaky evidence and biased opinion.

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    This answer seems to reject a claim written in a book because the author of the book believes the claim. That's not a reason to reject a claim - if the claim was true and the author had good evidence to support it, that would be expected.
    – Oddthinking
    May 11 at 2:23
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    I can see you are pointing out the confusion between SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2, which I think is an excellent point, but I think it is worth making that distinction more explicitly clear.
    – Oddthinking
    May 11 at 2:25
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    @Oddthinking Hmm, maybe I should restructure the answer to make it more cohesive. The news OP linked claims that the original book explored the potential of engineering a bio weapon from CoV, suggesting that somehow the book is an evidence of premeditation, thus adding legitimacy that China made COVID-19 as a bio weapon. My point is that this book cannot be used to prove it because 1. It was written to push the theory of CoV being a US bio weapon not exploring its potential for China's military. 2. It had little influence and was criticized for deviate from consensus and being biased May 11 at 3:08
  • @Oddthinking 3. The expert mentioned in OP's news link, belongs to an organization that is known to hold a strong anti-China stance. Combined with the evidence provided from before, this makes the original claim's objectivity questionable. Do you think I should reorganize the answer based on the three points? May 11 at 3:10
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    One could more aptly summarize this as nearly fact-free propaganda wars. Xu et al. wrote a book thinly accusing the West/US of engineering SARS. Amusingly, perhaps, Jennings uses the book to claim that China thus had something to do with an accidental release of Covid-19 as a "bioweapon."
    – Fizz
    May 11 at 7:09

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