Beyond Coronavirus: Why India needs to be prepared for Bioterrorism
By Debajit Sarkar
Biological weapons entail the utilization of contaminantsor infectious agents that are biological in origin. They are also referred to as “germ warfare”. These infectious agents can include bacteria, fungi or viruses and are employed to disable or kill humans, flora and fauna as part of a war effort. In effect, biological warfare is exploiting non-human life to unsettle or even end human life. Given the fact that living organisms can be unstableand extremely buoyant, biological weapons are tough tomanage, potentially destructive on a global scale. The World Health Organization (WHO) describes Biological weapons as – “microorganisms like virus, bacteria, fungi, or other toxins that are produced and released deliberately to cause disease and death in humans, animals or plants.” Biological weapons are graduallybeing recognized as one of the crucial future threats to international security.
The outbreak called Coronavirus
Coronavirus disease 2019 or COVID-19 is a communicable disease produced by the severe acute respiratory syndrome. Since 2019, the disease has spread globally. Earlier this month WHO declared Covid-19 as a pandemic. Official statistics published by various governments suggests, that globally, close to 5,000 people have died from the disease. However, more than 70,000 have also recovered. Globally, Covid-19 is spreading exponentially. It takes weeks to find out if an individual affected with Covid-19 will recover. This means, at any point the vast majority of affected people are classified “unknown outcome”. A reasonably effective survival analysis of patients can be done using statistical methods like Censored Data, i.e. data where we don’t know the label yet. Furthermore, aggressive testing, contact tracing and social distancing can decrease transmission but it won’t stop the spread of the virus immediately. Also, the death rate is likely to surge as hospital systems become exhausted, respirators are unavailable and the staff are sick or burning out. Is it possible that Covid-19 is actually a bioweapon? Several Western analysts and organizations have alleged Covid-19 as a biological weapon developed and unleased by the communist regime in China.
History of biological weapons in the past century
Regardless of whether or not Covid-19 is a biological weapon, history suggests that bio weapons have been developed and used in warfare, especially in the past century. Fatal mustard gas was extensively used during World War I and during World War II, both Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany embarked on a largescale program to develop biological weapons. Similarly, at the height of the Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union established huge biowarfare projects. This involved the development of aerosol sprays that are capable of transporting bacterial and viral agents by plane or ballistic missile. Although the Biological Weapons Convention that has been ratified by 22 nations, bans the use of biological weapons, weak verification and compliance issues ensure that there is no credible way to trace the development of biological weapons in any country. Today, frozen stocks of the small pox virus are allegedly maintained by a couple of governments. However more than a dozen conventional biological agents that includes anthrax, Ebola and typhus, along with an unspecified number of genetically engineered organisms may well be released by terrorists or rogue states on an unsuspicious public.
India is at risk from bioterrorism
To prevent the large scale spread of Covid-19 the Indian Government has swung into action. Almost all visas for entry into India has been suspended. Indian nationalscoming back could be quarantined. Land borders are being sealed. This is as actual as it gets to a war. India’s biggest war against a pandemic since independence.
Bioweapons offer terrorist groups and “rogue states” like Pakistan that are waging an unconventional war against the Indian government for the last three decades an affordable way to counter India’s overwhelming military superiority. Genetic maps of deadly viruses, bacteria and other microorganisms are already broadly available in the public domain. With state support these terrorist groups can clone exceptionally malicious strains of bacteria and viruses, genetically engineer microorganisms and thereafter using gene editing technology like Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) insert genes into the DNA of millions of innocent Indians. Owing to the extended time that it takes for them to multiply and take effect, there is a lot of time for the perpetrator to bolt,undetected.
The fight against bioterrorism
The Indian government along with friendly nations need to pool their resources and make major investments in the research and development of state-of-the-artdevices that are capable of instantaneously detecting lethal bacteria and viruses in the environment. Clinical labs capable of deploying cutting edge technologies need to be set up. Also, the production and stockpiling of new vaccines needs to be increased. A surveillance system should be set up nationwide that should be staffed with clinicians and veterinarians who are trained to identify a bioweapon attack immediately after such a weapon is unleashed. Advanced countries like the Netherlands and Israel have already initiated such steps. Consequently, a nationwide response plan against any bioweapon attack is in place.
The threat posed by bioterrorism is huge. Several major military powers have now included bioweapons in the category of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The Indian Government must be all set, every step of the way to fight bioterrorism. Because a country that is able and organized in the face of adversity has already won half the battle.
(The author is a subject matter expert on competitive intelligence and market research in the aerospace and defence industry. Views expressed are personal.)