China to vaccine the Army to avoid the Roman Empire’s fate

by Andrea Monti – adjunct professor of law and order at the University of Chieti-Pescara – Originally published in Italian by

A piece of recent news is that China has decided to test Ad5-nCoV, a possible vaccine for the Coronavirus, on its armed forces. According to the British newspaper The Telegraph, the choice would depend on the fact that the military “offers a more compact medical control group than the public”.

Although the use on civilians and not only by Chinese descent could be possible (the experimentation was also authorized in Canada), it is useful to think about the meaning of the choice to develop and test the vaccine in the military.

When, in 160 A.D., the Roman Empire was hit by the Antonine plague, one of the most cumbersome effects was the reduction in the number of legionnaires. As the miles fell under the blows of the virus, it was increasingly difficult to find new subjects to enlist so that the Empire was forced to resort to the barbarian tribes. In the short term – at least formally – re-established the military superiority but – in the medium-long term – marked the beginning of its fall.

Seen from this perspective, then, the Chinese choice takes an entirely different appearance, because it suggests a strategic use of the vaccine.
The few filtered news on the spread of the Coronavirus in the Western Armed Forces (such as the infection on the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle – or the American Nimitz) reasonably suggests that the numbers are very different and much more consistent and that, therefore, there may be a problem of reduced ability to act and react. If therefore, the Coronavirus can reduce the efficiency of the military apparatus, it is clear that recovering it – or not losing it – is a priority that exceeds that of finding a vaccine to make available to the civilian population (even non-Chinese).

All the more reason if we consider that the “number” – that is, the number of military personnel – is one of the strong elements of the Chinese offensive apparatus and therefore can turn into a weakness if it is not possible to block the circulation of the Coronavirus. The perception of the strategic role of Ad5-nCoV is enhanced by considering that the military authorities must authorize the release of the vaccine for civilian use. Like all their counterparts around the world, they will take decisions based on needs other than those of “mere” protection of public health. Of course, other countries will also develop the vaccine and therefore, can balance the scales. However, even if Cold War II is not fought (directly) in the trenches, it is still subject to the interaction between weakness and time factor. The duration of a condition of vulnerability must be reduced – or eliminated – as quickly as possible and that returning to standard operational capability before the “enemy” is a way to conquer the high-ground – the strategic/tactical advantage.

As crucial as the Ad5-nCoV question is in the short term, the issue of military control or the strategic use of (bio)medicine technologies is extraordinarily more extensive and fundamental in the difficult search for a balance of the world order. One need only think of the controversies over the use of gene-editing techniques such as Crispr-Cas9 to understand how control over life sciences becomes an essential element of a country’s arsenal.

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