Dr. Sudershan Kumar
The use of biological warfare agents dates back to antiquity. History is full of incidents where archers used arrows dipped in contaminated blood. Even world war 1 witnessed the use of these weapons. The modern era is much more clouded with the menace of the biological agents as a tool against enemies as they are the most feared. These biological weapons include agents like microorganisms or toxins produced by them, to cause incapacitation or death. They have been sporadically used since centuries.
It dates back to ancient Roman civilization, where dead and rotting animals were thrown into well to poison water supplies. It continued into 14th century, where the bubonic plague was used to infiltrate enemy cities to instill fear of infection among residents and facilitate their evacuation. Sometimes, it was used to decimate defensive forces that would not yield or succumb to attack otherwise. Furthermore, primitive medical technology provided little means of protection for the aggressor and the battle surrounding geographical regions. This led to wide spread epidemics such as bubonic plague, which killed large portion of population in Western Europe.
Similar techniques were used by Russians in the seize of Swedish cities in year 1710. Napoleon also flooded the plains around Mantua, Italy and Confederate sold the clothing of patients suffering from Yellow fever and small pox to Americans. But simultaneously, the dangers associated with these types of weapons were also recognized. This resulted into two International declarations in Brussels and Hague in the year 1874 and 1899 respectively, which prohibited the use of poisoned weapons.In spite of that in world war I German and French agents used Glanders and Anthrax. However after world war I, although Geneva Protocol (1928) for prevention of the use in war of asphyxiating, poisons, or other gases and of bacteriological methods of warfare was signed yet this protocol could not curtail the production and offensive use of these biological weapons.
More so alarmingly, in the twentieth century, there have been many sporadic incidents where bio war fare agents have been used in one form or the other by various organisations. In late 1930 and 1940’s Japanese used plague as a biological weapon in Sino Japan War. They filled bombs with plague infected fleas and dropped them on two Chinese cities. They also used Cholera and Shigella as weapons in other attacks. As a result nearly 580,000 Chinese were killed.
Nothing with standing this, the United States initiated bio war fare programme in twentieth century. US military developed biological weapons and investigated their biological effects at biological warfare laboratories based at Fort Detrick in Maryland from 1949-1961. They produced and weaponized several biological agents including Anthrax, Botulinum toxin. But they never used in any conflict. Subsequently they claimed to have destroyed these bio weapons and focused on defensive measures such as immunization and vaccine. Parallelly Soviet Union (Now Russia) had also produced large quantity of small pox, viruses and many other disease agents in its bio weapon programme.
Till 1970 it stockpiled tonnes of small pox virus in its biological arsenal and maintained its stockpile till 1990. All this was accomplished against the backdrop of “Biological and Toxins Weapon Convention (BTWC)” which was effective from the year 1975 on ward.This clearly echoes the failures of BTWC to curtail the biological war fare programme around the globe. Even erst while USSR(now Russia) was instrumental in the propagation of sponsored Anthrax warfare programme.An accidental release of small amount of weaponized Anthrax from military research facility in the year 1979 led to 70 deaths. Subsequently, the then USSR (Now Russia) claimed that it destroyed its stockpile of bio weapons and also dismantled bio program in late 1990’s.
On similar note Iraq had admitted in United Nation that it possessed a stockpile of around thousands of tones of Botulinum toxin in its biological arsenal. Though Iraq government abandoned its bio programme after first Iraq war but the whereabouts of its infectious material are still not known. Therefore the issue, which was and even now of concern to International Community was the dreaded terrorist organization Al-qada’s quest to acquire bio weapons facilities in Afghanistan.
These facilities were simultaneously destroyed by USA by bombing on their their training camps in Afghanistan. According to the unclassified reports of the year 2005, there are still nations which are pursuing their offensive biological programme in violation of BTWC treaty. These crucial biological agents are broadly classified in three categories. First are the agents which cause , major public hazards like Anthrax, Botulinum Haemorrhagic fever, Plague, Small pox and Tularemia. Second category includes the agents which cause public hazard viz Cholera, Brucellosis, Encephalitis etc.
The third category includes pathogens and also pathogens that are made more pathogenic by genetic engineering including Hanta virus, Nipah virus, Tick Borne Encephalitis and Hemorrhagic fever, Yellow fever and multidrug resistant bacteria. Besides there can be many more different types of viruses which can be a part of biological arsenal. This of course depends on country’s capacity and capability. More recently there is a heartening emergence of a new type of Corona Virus detected in Wuhan city in Hubei province of China. The name Corona comes from Latin word meaning Crown or garland. But when virus strain is viewed under electron microscope its image is like a Solar Corona.
These viruses are transmitted from animals to human and even human to human transmission is there. Their incubation period is around 2 to 14 days. A virus inflicted person who is suffering from this new virus will have symptoms simulating flu and will develop symptoms ranging from fever, coughing, shortness of breath, myalgias and fatigue to more severe complications like pneumonia, acute respiratory distress resulting into death. The Corona Virus, which initially infected nearly 40 people in city of Wuhan located in Hubei province of China in the month December 2019 has taken an ugly turn. As on date there are nearly more than 2000 deaths and epidemic has spread around the globe. There are nearly 28 countries, who are feeling the brunt of this virus.. As per World Health Organization (WHO), there are nearly 7500 people who are affected from this deadly Corona virus. The number is swelling day by day. WHO has also declared Global Health Emergency. China has given this new virus an official code COVID-19. Chinese health authorities claim that this virus has originated from sea food market in Wuhan, where wild life is traded illegally. Thus the occurrence of Corona virus may be from illegal trafficking of Pangolin, which are prized in Asia for food and medicine. But at the same time it is also an established fact that China has also set up one of the most advanced micro biological centre at Wuhan. Some in international arena may have a different version about the origin of Corona virus in Wuhan city of Hubei province of China. Therefore the exact cause of the origin of this deadly virus may be left to the judgement of International Community and World Health Organization.
They should explore all possibilities of origin of this new Corona virus. But at the same time the out break of this new Corona virus has posed some major severe challenges to each country in which , the infected people from China have arrived. Moreover scientists around the globe are racing hard to develop a vaccine which can curtail the spread of the disease. They are expecting that the vaccine will be available in the market by 2021. Till then the other means need to be explored to contain the disease. But ironically and most significantly, on a closer inspection of the characteristic of this Corona virus a seemingly detrimental face of this corona virus emerges, which is that it can be used as a tool of the bio war fare arsenal.
Even though the fatality rate of COVID-19 is low as compared to SARS(Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) yet it has killed more number of people as compared to combined SARS AND MERS(Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).Also its mortality rate is 20 times more than that of flu. Thus emerged as a very important candidate of biological weapons. Hence there is a strong possibility that the various non state actors, rogue states may try to lay hand on this new type of weapon especially in the present twenty first century. Hence the threat due to this new Corona virus in bio terrorism increases many fold especially when required vaccine for immunization of masses is still under development.
More over highly professional youth are getting attracted towards Wahhabi Islam. There fore all out efforts have to be made to counter this twenty first century new biological weapon. International community should work in a consortium to formulate stringent protocols that the state actors /non state actors are not able to lay hand on technology required to develop this sort of bio weapon. Parallelly, public health and animal health infrastructures must be prepared to prevent illness that would result from bio terrorism like emerging infectious diseases.Early detection and control of biological attack depends on strong and flexible public health and animal health system at local , state and national levels.It’ time we prepare our selves and act now as we all are vulnerable.