The use of lethal biological agents dates back to antiquity. History is full of incidents where archers used poisoned arrows dipped in contaminated blood. Even World War I witnessed the use of these weapons. But modern era is even more involved in the covert use of these lethal biological weapons than in the past, as it is one of the most feared weapons used against enemies.
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 civilisation, 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 seizure 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 recognised. 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. After World War I, though Geneva Protocol (1928) for prevention of the use in war of asphyxiating, poisons, or other gases and of bacteriological methods of warfare was signed this protocol could not curtail the production and use of these biological weapons. In the 20th century, there have been many sporadic incidents where bio-warfare agents were used in one form or the other by various organisations. In late 1930 and 1940’s Japanese used plague as a biological weapon in the 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.
The US initiated the bio-warfare programme in the 20th century. US military developed biological weapons and investigated their biological effects in bio-labs 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 immunisation and vaccine. In parallel, the former Soviet Union had also produced large quantity of small pox, viruses and many other disease agents in its bio-weapons 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 wards. This clearly echoes the failure of BTWC to curtail the biological warfare programme around the globe.
Even the Soviet Union was instrumental in the propagation of sponsored Anthrax warfare programme. An accidental release of small amount of weaponised Anthrax from a military research facility in 1979 led to 70 deaths. Subsequently, the USSR claimed that it had destroyed its stockpile of bio-weapons and also dismantled the programme in late 1990’s. On a similar note, Iraq had admitted in the UN that it had possessed a stockpile of around a thousand tonnes of Botulinum toxin in its biological arsenal. Though Iraq government abandoned its bio-weapons programme after the Gulf War the whereabouts of its biological material are still not known. Therefore the issue, is of concern to international community, was Al-Qaeda’s quest to acquire bio-weapons facilities in Afghanistan. These facilities were destroyed by US forces. According to an unclassified report in 2005, there are still rogue nations which are pursuing biological programmes in violation of BTWC treaty.
These crucial biological agents are broadly classified under 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 such as Cholera, Brucellosis, Encephalitis etc. The third category includes pathogens. Pathogens that are made more lethal 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 an emergence of a new type of virus called Corona virus detected in Wuhan city in Hubei province of China. The name Corona comes from Latin word meaning ‘crown’ or ‘garland’. But when the virus strain is viewed under electron microscope it looks like a ‘solar corona’. These viruses are transmitted from animals to human and even human to human transmission is possible. Their incubation period is around 2 to 14 days. A corona virus infected person will show symptoms of flu and will develop fever, cough, shortness of breath, myalgias and fatigue to more severe complications like pneumonia, acute respiratory distress resulting in death.
The Corona virus, which initially infected nearly 40 people in the city of Wuhan in the month December 2019 has taken an ugly turn. As on date there have been more than 3000 deaths and the epidemic has spread around the globe. There are nearly 28 countries, who are feeling the brunt of this virus. According to World Health Organization (WHO), there are nearly 7500 people who are affected from deadly virus. The number is increasing day by day. WHO has also declared Global Health Emergency.
China has given this new virus an official name called COVID-19. Chinese health authorities claim that this virus may have originated from seafood market in Wuhan, where wildlife is traded illegally. Thus the occurrence of Corona virus may be from illegal trafficking of Pangolins, which are prized in Asia for food and medicine. But at the same time it is interesting to note that China has also set up one of the most advanced micro biological labs 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 judgment of International Community and World Health Organization. The outbreak of this new 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 warfare arsenal. Even though the fatality rate of COVID-19 is low as compared to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), 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. 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 immunisation of masses is still under development. More over highly professional youth are getting attracted towards Wahhabi Islam. Therefore 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. 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 ourselves and act now as we all are vulnerable.
(The writer is former Director General of DRDO)