Is biological warfare raising its ugly head?

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Is biological warfare raising its ugly head?

Saturday, 07 March 2020 | Ramesh Davesar

Going by the suspicions over the origin of the Coronavirus, we cannot rule out that other countries are also engineering new bioweapons, the likes of which have never been seen before

History tells us that bio-agents were restrictively used in both the World Wars (WWs). However, since then, biological warfare  (BW) has largely been avoided and though a few attempts were made by some non-State actors during the 1970s-80s, by and large BW has been kept in abeyance. But of late, covert and clandestine research and development by various countries and the production of bio-agents during the post WW-II era have brought it closer to, if not at par with its close cousins — nuclear and chemical weapons. Known by different pseudonyms such as the “poor man’s atom bomb” or “germ warfare”,  BW is broadly defined  as, “The use of biological toxins or infectious agents like bacteria, virus and fungi, with the intent to kill or incapacitate humans, animals or plants as an act of war.” These are primarily meant to cause mass casualties, infect a large number of people, natural resources and above all, spread panic among the rival armed forces.  Devastating agents like Bacillus Anthracis, Botulism and Variola are used to spread epidemics like anthrax, cholera, plague and smallpox.

Mustard gas, a primitive bio-agent, was used during the WW-I, leading to a global outrage, which culminated in an unratified treaty banning bioweapons in 1925. Similarly, during WW-II, the Japanese allegedly used bio- agents against Chinese prisoners, while the Russians did the same with the Germans. Thereafter, no major use of bio-agents was reported, except for the Sarin gas attack in 1995 by the Japanese cult  Aum Shinrikyo in a Tokyo subway. A  few treaties banning the use of BWs were initiated but did not make any headway as some countries refused to sign on the dotted line. The result is that a number of countries, to be precise 16, including major powers like Canada, Cuba, Israel, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria and North Korea are reportedly maintaining and expanding their BW inventory. As per Steven Block, a bio-physicist, the US and Russia are reportedly keeping frozen stocks of smallpox along with conventional bio-agents like anthrax and typhus.

China, under its advanced bioweapons programme launched a few years ago, is not only trying to gain parity with the US and Russia but is aggressively working towards engineering new virus spores. One may call it a coincidence but the sudden outbreak of Coronavirus, perhaps the most potent and devastating in recent times, from Wuhan, China in December 2019, has given credence to these claims.

This pandemic has already spread to 85 countries and claimed 3,400 lives with over 1,00,000 confirmed cases that are growing by the day.  India, too, has seen 30 cases and this has led to cancellation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Brussels for an India-European Union summit.

In the meantime, US Republican Senator Bob Cotton has asserted that the Coronavirus originated from a high security laboratory in Wuhan. This claim further substantiates global fears against Chinese designs as the country is also said to be working on gene editing technology — a targetted bio-weapon that was successfully tested in 2018.

To coin a new terminology, the “geo-biological” scenario is becoming alarming and of late virus outbreaks have become rampant. First it was the Ebola in Kenya followed by the Zika virus attack in Nigeria in October 2019 and then came the Nipah virus in Asia, particularly Kerala. Going by the suspicions over the origin of the Coronavirus, we cannot rule out that other countries are also engineering new bioweapons, the likes of which have never been seen before.

Take for instance, the recent locust clouds that originated from West Asia and struck part of Pakistan and India — particularly Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat — causing extensive damage to crops in an area of 1.70 lakh hectares. It looks like a perennial  affair and there are fears that the next attack during the monsoon would be of greater magnitude. However, it is believed that locust larvae can be genetically engineered and if this happens, this menace will add a new dimensions to BW.

So far, there are no reports to corroborate  that rogue elements or non-State actors have got access to bio-weapons. But one cannot sit complacent because keeping in mind the current fragile global security scenario, such assumptions are short-lived. In the meantime, a new concept, “black biology” is doing the rounds. This is a shadowy science in which organisms are genetically engineered for the sole purpose of creating bio-terrorism. Keeping in mind the devastating effects of BW, there is a need to have a ratified global treaty banning research, production and the use of bio-agents and virus spores and also instituting stringent sanctions against its pilferage for use by terrorist outfits. Closer home, due to the peculiar climatic conditions, vast land mass, the high density of population and lack of primary healthcare, we are highly vulnerable to BW. Thus, India needs to evolve and institute a exhaustive mechanism by harnessing both military and civil resources. In fact, the late Manohar Parrikar, the then Defence Minister, cautioned the nation against BW and stressed that we need to be fully prepared against it.

Keeping this in mind, we must create awareness, both at the research and operational level. At the national level, the Ministry of Home Affairs should be the nodal Ministry to oversee operations. Foremost, the concept of “national bio-defence” must be evolved to encompass threat assessment; effective surveillance and early detection, leading to specialised treatment, including protective vaccines right up to the primary healthcare level. Bio-containment labs both at the national and regional level are required to isolate and arrest threatening bio organisms. Accordingly, the armed forces should also reappraise and upgrade the medical support infrastructure to ensure, protection and treatment of troops.

(The writer is a retired Infantry Officer with vast operational experience)

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