Coronavirus: Covid-19

Biological Warfare and Bioterrorism

The world is facing one of the biggest humanitarian crises, and the Coronavirus outbreak has literally brought the earth to a halt. As this Covid-19 pandemic continues its destructive course, various theories of its origin are doing the rounds. Could the pandemic have been the result of an accident at a bio-safety level 4 laboratory in China’s Wuhan city, and could the virus be a bio-weapon.

Biological warfare (BW) is the use of biological toxins or infectious agents such as bacteria, viruses, insects, and fungi with the intent to kill or incapacitate humans, animals or plants as an act of war. Bio-agents are living organisms or viruses which are often not considered as “alive”. Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) warfare, a term that militaries often use for weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Biological weapons may be employed in various ways to gain a strategic or tactical advantage over the enemy, either by threat of use or by actual employment. Biological weapons can act like an area denial weapon. The BW agents may be lethal or non-lethal and used against an individual or a group of people, or even an entire population. The use of biological weapons is prohibited and is covered by many international treaties, and the use of biological agents in armed conflict is a war crime.

Bioterrorism involves the intentional release of biological agents such as viruses, bacteria, toxins or other harmful agents to cause illness or death in people, animals, or plants. These agents could be found in nature, or mutated or altered to increase their ability to cause disease, make them resistant to current medicines, or to increase their ability to be spread into the environment. These could be spread through the air, water, or in food. The agents could be attractive to terrorists as they are very difficult to detect. Bioterrorism is favoured because biological agents are relatively easy and inexpensive to obtain, spread, and can cause great fear and panic.

Bio-agents that have the “potential to pose a severe threat to public health and safety” are officially classified under categories (A, B or C). Category A agents can be easily transmitted and disseminated, result in high mortality, and pose a risk to national security. These include Tularemia (rabbit fever), Anthrax, Smallpox virus, the neurotoxin Botulinum, Ebola virus, among others. Terror groups like ISIS could develop a synthetic BW agent. The synthetic strains could render a vaccine ineffective; have resistance to therapeutically useful antibiotics.

Shortly after the start of WW I, Germany launched a biological sabotage campaign in the United States, Russia, Romania, and France through a virulent disease of horses and mules. As a consequence, the Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare was ratified in 1925, and prohibited the use of BW, but not their research and production. During the interwar period, the Japanese created the dreaded Army Epidemic Prevention Research Laboratory Unit 731 in 1932. Japanese dropped plague-infected fleas, infected food and clothing by aircraft into areas of China that were not occupied by Japan.

The new Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction (BWC) was signed in 1972.  During Operation Desert Shield, in 1990, the USA and the coalition forces faced the threat of biological and chemical warfare in Iraq. In preparation, approximately 150,000 US troops were administered toxoid vaccine against anthrax. In late 2001, several cases of anthrax broke out in the United States, caused by letters laced with infectious anthrax concurrently delivered to news media offices and the U.S Congress. The letters killed five.

The first responders  to bioterrorism incident would be the law enforcement agencies, hazardous materials and decontamination units, and emergency medical units. In India, local health authorities, security agencies and National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) would be the first responders. Medical countermeasures for bio-threats should be well established.

Militaries of major nations have specialized units, which can respond to a bioterrorism event and CBRN defence. All the U.S. Armed forces have special training for soldiers pursuing a career in CBRN. The Indian Army has 16 CBRN monitoring vehicles. These are developed by the DRDO and manufactured by Ordnance Factories. Indian Air Force and Navy also have means to secure their airfields and installations from CBRN threat and educate their personnel and carry out drills.

BW remains a threat in the public sphere that has to be taken seriously and responded to without overreaction at the both individual and political levels. Public awareness is increasing, but lot more needs to be done. Bill Gates has warned that bioterrorism could kill more people than nuclear war. Countries have to prepare for the worst and also need to allot more funds for detection and response to bio-terrorism

Author: Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retd.) PVSM, AVSM, VM, VSM
The Author was a pioneer of the Mirage 2000 fleet and commanded a Mirage Squadron, two operational air bases and the IAF’s Flight Test Centre ASTE. He was the Team Leader of an aircraft upgrade project in Russia. He was head of IAF in J&K and Inspections in IAF, and has been a member of the Armed Forces Tribunal, and JNU Executive Council.

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