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Biological Warfare and BioTerrorism – The Weapons of the Modern Day

Bioterrorism
Image Credits – ECCI

Human civilization has a history full of conflicts, hostilities, and wars. It is, therefore, apposite to quote George Santayana, 1922, Only the dead have seen the end of the war. Every war has a reason. The causes of war include conquest, freedom, religion, etc. The human thirst for expansion and dominance is quite primitive now. 

These days man has been dependent on the possession of weapons which ranges from missiles to atom bombs. Chemical and Biological weapons have also been used considerably for waging wars, even at the cost of human lives. Several epidemics such as Chickenpox, Cholera, Plague, and Pneumonia have already caused havoc. Many countries in the world have invented biological weapons to boost their defense and army. Such weapons would cause mass destruction if used during wars.

Though the image of biological warfare may have become hazy, the world seems to have forgotten about bioweapons, but the threat still exists. Given the outbreak of SARs-CoV-2, the threat of biowarfare has once again emerged in political discourse. The use of bioweapons from the hands of terrorists would be a devastating nightmare. The recent takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban has expedited the menace of biological warfare. It is therefore important to build a defense mechanism and to guard against such threats. An international agreement backed by mandatory clauses plus a system for monitoring the activities related to the development of bioweapons is much needed.    

What is Biological Warfare?

Biological warfare refers to a war whereby disease-causing agents such as virus, bacteria, fungi, or their toxins, are used deliberately to kill or incapacitate humans, animals, and plants. The development in the field of biotechnology has paved the way for such warfare. Additionally, Genome editing which has given the power the hands of scientists to add, remove or alter the DNA has reactivated the risk of weaponized pathogens. Also, CRISPR-Cas9, a new mechanism of gene editing, which is more efficient and cheaper, jeopardizes the fears of the weaponization of biowarfare.

On one hand, advancement in gene editing would facilitate the scientific challenge and on the other hand, it will cause great danger if it is misused as it does not require sophisticated technology and it gives an edge to the terrorist groups. Anthrax, caused by pathogens, does not require a laboratory to be prepared. They are available in nature. And due to this, the nations which require the equipment for bioweapons can easily get access to it.

The nature of the outbreak of biowarfare coincides with the natural calamities and therefore is difficult to trace the exact development. The main problem is the chances of the rival of old biological warfare by the states which would revive once again, arms race. There is a twofold challenge attached to this. If the country becomes overprotective, it will moderate the profits of biotechnology. However, disregarding the resurgence of bioweapons altogether is also threatening in the long run. 

History of Biological Warfare  

  • Mongolians, in an attempt to infect surrounding city dwellers, using catapults to throw the bodies of bubonic plague sufferers over the city walls of Caff in 1336.
  • The plague-tainted cloth was used by Tunisians as a weapon in 1785.
  • The Cold War led the Soviet Union to possess a range of bioweapons. They used bioweapons to destroy agriculture, primarily the economy of the enemy nations. Even the then president of Yugoslavia, Marshal Tito, was assassinated by using an organism, which causes plague, by Stalin.
  • Japan conducted the largest-scale use of biological weapons of all time during the 1940s. It undertook both small and large-scale attacks on China. During one of its drives, the Japanese dropped plague-infected fleas from aircraft onto Chinese targets and spread organisms liable for other diseases in water and rice fields. 

Agreements on Biological Weapons – An attempt to avoid BioWarfare and BioTerrorism

Bioweapons pose some challenges due to which the states have questioned their value. The large time span between exposure and symptoms has distracted the use of such weapons during a war. The major problem attributed to bioweapons is that the agent can blow back to the user, which can devastate the attacking country. Preparations for an attack on such a large scale are also a big deal. Random winds, altering terrain, or wrong dosage can all lead to a breakdown. These strategic and technical difficulties are not unconquerable. However, this has led the nations to voluntarily give up on bioweapons. 

The law is quite clear; bioweapons should not exist anywhere and in any form. One hundred and eighty-three countries have signed the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). It was signed in 1972 which banned the development, production, and stockpiling of all forms of biological weapons. The countries have agreed to disallow the use of bioweapons and have also destroyed their arsenals. The specter of Bioweapons has once again become a nightmare in the 21st century. Even if on paper or openly no country possesses bioweapons. But there have been allegations that some countries still have them. The recent breakthrough in science and technology has opened loopholes to the Biological Weapons Convention. The innovations in gene editing and synthetic biology are a new threat to humanity.

Is COVID -19 a Bioweapon?

Biological Warfare
Image Credits – Social Media

The coronavirus disease has taken more than 4.6 million lives. Two theories are aired related to the development of the coronavirus. The first theory states the coronavirus is the result of an accident that took place at a biosafety laboratory in Wuhan city. The second theory states China has intentionally launched a bio-attack to become a superpower. There is an apprehension of conspiracy for economic dominance. The Wuhan Institute of technology is blamed for seeding the scourge. It means the Chinese government has deliberately created the genetic sequence of a bat virus and a pangolin virus by swapping them, which have given rise to the virus of Covid -19. There is a belief that Covid 19 is artificially created and is a new form of biological weapon.

Why is COVID-19 not a Biowepon?

The US intelligence community has concluded that SARS-CoV-2, is not a bioweapon. This is mainly because the genome has been sequenced by many labs worldwide and pored over by scientists. Like archaeologists looking at fossils for clues about a creature’s evolution, virologists analyze the genetic code for signs of human interference. They have compared the sequence to those from other similar viruses to find out what it is most closely related to. This is used to create a phylogenetic tree, which looks like an ancestry tree, to show us the virus’s closest relatives. There is no evidence to suggest that the COVID-19 virus is a biological weapon. Scientific evidence suggests the Covid 19 spilled over from animals to people. The closest relative found to SARS-CoV -2 is found in horseshoe bats known as Bat CoV RaTG13.

Most importantly, the difference in the coronavirus affecting humans, and the part that makes it so effective at infecting, is its spike protein. Disease grips humanity’s imagination with a chokehold. It distances people from one another and may create animosities between groups. The fear of disease trumps even war.

BioTerrorism – A Threat of 21st Century

Bioterrorism is a type of terrorism where biological agents such as bacteria, viruses, or other germs are intentionally released to cause unrest and instill fear in the minds of people.

The threat of bioterrorism is increasing because of the following reasons-

  • The rise of technical capabilities of various countries in the world is giving an edge to the development of biowarfare. With the progress in the field of biotechnology, access to these weapons has become easy.
  • Frequent mutation in the bioweapon is also facilitating biowarfare and bioterrorism. For example, we consider COVID-19, as a bioweapon, different mutations of the disease could be found. These mutations require different medicines and have different methods to cure, which is again challenging.
  • A living organism that is used in biowarfare or bioterrorism is unpredictable and incredibly resilient. Sometimes antibiotics or other medicines do not work on them.
  • Biological weapons are also difficult to control as they spread very easily.
  • Bioweapons have the potential to cause devastation on a large scale.
  • The growth in the sector of biotechnology is also giving access to terrorist groups. The terrorists are taking a deep interest in biowarfare, considering its wide scope to commit bioterrorism.
  • Small amounts of biotic agents can be concealed, are transportable, and can be easily discharged into vulnerable populations.

Why is there an increased threat of BioWarfare and BioTerrorism?

There is no credible way to trace the development of bioweapons in any country. It cannot be verified in which laboratory of India what is prepared and to monitor it. It is therefore difficult to control its development, unlike nuclear weapons. Thus it is relatively easier to control the production of nuclear weapons which requires energy and fuel for development. But countries can even prepare biological weapons in a small lab. Also, there is no consensus and lack of collaboration between developing and developed countries on biological weapons.

Regardless of whether or not COVID-19 is a bioweapon, India needs to be careful. Bioweapons have been used for a long time now. The development of aerosol sprays during the Cold war is an example of biowarfare. There are also allegations that some countries have frozen stocks of smallpox to be used as bioweapons. Other dangerous Bio agents include Anthrax, Ebola, and typhus. India is vulnerable because it has a long border with different countries, which is porous in a lot of places. India also has a long coastline that adds to the problem. The climate of India is also suitable for the growth of microbes.

A large population of India signifies that communicable diseases can be easily transferred. Also, India’s health care expenditure is 1% of GDP and poor health care facilities make it more vulnerable to bioterrorism. Growing border conflicts with Pakistan and China’s advances in gene editing has considerably alarmed the threat levels. The close relationship between China and Pakistan poses serious concerns for India. Also taking over of Afghanistan by the Taliban and upsurge of terrorism in the world is fear-mongering.

Conclusion

At this point, there is a need for fresh global consensus to strengthen the norms against bioweapons. The international community must reinforce the existing norms. There is a need to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention. Also, the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, together with other countries, should emphasize using synthetic biology techniques, not for hostile reasons. The current norms should harden the community by making it aware of its hostilities, in case of violation. The Armed and its medical services should be at the vanguard to fight against bioterrorism.

The Home Minister of India has also recognized the threat of bioterrorism. There should also be more cooperation with friendly nations to avoid such depredation. Major investments should be made in the research and development of devices capable of detecting deadly bacteria and viruses. Also, clinical labs must be set up, which are capable of deploying cutting-edge technologies. The production and stockpiling of new vaccines should also be increased. Further, a surveillance system must be set up nationwide, staffed with clinicians and veterans trained to identify a bioweapon attack. To prevent such wars, governments and scientists must arm themselves with confidence and fear equally. Returning to a state of biowarfare is not science fiction anymore. But the strategy of strong disincentive can keep that possibility only in fiction.

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