It sounded like the stuff of tabloids but a claim published on the weekend that Chinese military scientists discussed weaponising a deadly strain of coronavirus came from a mainstream Australian media outlet. The Weekend Australian reported on Saturday that a document written by People’s Liberation Army scientists and senior Chinese public health officials five years before the outbreak of Covid-19 described Sars coronaviruses as heralding a “new era of genetic weapons”. The report said that in the document the Chinese scientists outlined their ideas that a third world war would be fought with biological weapons. The report quoted a digital forensics specialist who had “previously analysed leaked Chinese government documents” as verifying the authenticity of the paper. It also quoted British and Australian foreign affairs and intelligence officials as saying the document – which was “obtained by the US State Department” – raised major concerns about China’s lack of transparency over the origins of Covid-19 . Only the “document” cited in the report is far from being leaked, top-secret military material. It is a 261-page book published in 2015 that can be easily bought online and that, according to a number of book stores, did not sell well. The “document” in question is The Unnatural Origin of Sars and New Species of Man-Made Viruses as Genetic Bioweapons . It does discuss whether the coronavirus could be used by terrorists as a weapon against China – but it does not suggest that China was weaponising the coronavirus. The book was published just over a decade after the emergence of severe acute respiratory syndrome , or Sars, a form of atypical pneumonia caused by a type of coronavirus. Scientists call for new probe into coronavirus origins – with or without China In it, the authors questioned whether the Sars virus could have been a biological weapon released by a terrorist group against China. The lead author of the book was Xu Dezhong, a retired professor of infectious disease with the Air Force Medical University in Xian. “Based on ample evidence in epidemiology, molecular biology and evolutionary biology, this book concludes that Sars-CoV may have an unnatural, or man-made origin,” the authors said. The Sars virus disappeared suddenly and completely a few months after the outbreak, suggesting the incompatibility of an artificial virus with the human body, they argued. A natural virus would have lingered on, spread more widely and caused outbreaks in wave-like patterns, according to their book. But most scientists say Sars had a natural origin, with researchers from Guangdong and Hong Kong concluding that the virus made the leap to humans from civet cats. The first animal host could have been bats. In samples collected from a cave in southern Yunnan province, an international team of biologists reported in 2017 that they found all the necessary genes to build a complete sequence of the Sars genome, adding proof to the natural origin theory. WHO team probing coronavirus origins in China pushes back as report faces global criticism The Weekend Australian article described Xu as a lead scientist in Chinese military who reported to top health and military leaders during the Sars crisis . But Xu, then 70 years old, complained in the book that his theory was not taken seriously in China. He said he submitted a paper on his Sars’ origin theory to The Lancet , and wrote to the director general of the World Health Organization – all to no avail. There was, indeed, a full chapter in the book about possible methods to build biological weapons. But most content of the chapter came from an unclassified US military document drafted by Michael Ainscough, a colonel with the USAF Counterproliferation Centre. Xu said in the book that he translated Ainscough’s paper because it was written a year before the Sars outbreak in China. The timing did not mean the US government created Sars, but it did indicate the American efforts in the research, development and deployment of biological weapons using genetic methods, the book said. To give Ainscough full credit on detailing the technical approaches to create biological weapons, “I put his content in bold,” Xu said in the book. He could not be reached for comment. The consensus in the international scientific community is that Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, originated in animals before making the leap to humans. Li Keqiang says China will continue to work with WHO on coronavirus origins Strains found in samples collected around the world months before the coronavirus was identified suggest that it went through an extensive period of cryptic transmissions to adapt to humans. However, senior members of the former Trump administration in the United States alleged without proof that the virus came from a laboratory in Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first detected. Apart from the pandemic, Australia has been at loggerheads with China on a wide range of issues including Hong Kong, Tibet, Belt and Road Initiative and 5G. China has responded by cutting off Australian wine import and other commodities, and most recently suspended an economic dialogue between the two countries.