Biological warfare involves use of Micro-organisms or toxins derived from living organisms to produce death, disability or toxicity in humans, animals or plants. The history of biological warfare is as old as history of warfare itself. It was common practice in ancient warfare, to throw plague infested dead bodies in adversary’s territory or to gift small-pox infested blankets to enemy. The Biological warfare was adopted as late as 20th century to cause disease and epidemic among adversary’s troops camp.
By using genetic engineering, biological researchers have already developed new weapons that are much more effective than their natural counterparts.
In 1915-17 Germans actively used Anthrax and Glanders infection to infect allied forces, Russian forces, French and Romanian horses and cattle. In 1947 Zionists were accused of causing Cholera epidemic in Egypt, USA was accused of using Biological agents against North Korea in 1951-53 and against CUBA in 1964. USA has been alleged to have introduced one of the deadliest pests, the American Screw-worm fly in Libya to eliminate all animal and cattle. In 1970, North Korea was accused of causing cholera epidemic in South Korea.
Potential Biological Warfare Agents
The pathogens like Bacteria, Rickettsia, viruses and fungi have been used commonly to carry out Biological Warfare. Pathogens which have the characteristics ability to enter a host and cause severe form of disease in less dose and are easily transmissible are the most suitable.
A biological agent is dispersed either using a living vector like animal or cultured aerosol dispersant. Owing to their unique characteristics and limitations, Bio-weapons are classified based on effectivity, virulence, incubation period, transmissibility, lethality and susceptibility of target population. Rapid developments in biotechnology, genetics and genomics are undoubtedly creating a variety of genetically engineered ‘superbug’—highly lethal and resistant to environmental influence or any medical treatment. By using genetic engineering, biological researchers have already developed new weapons that are much more effective than their natural counterparts.
The development of reliable, effective biological weapons requires an intense and resource-demanding research programme that must, step by step, solve increasingly complex problems: the procurement of virulent strains of suitable agents, the mass production of the agents without loss of pathogenicity, and the development of an effective means of delivery.
The legal provisions pertaining to Biological Weapons
India remains committed to safeguard its national security as a Nuclear Weapon State. At the same time, India’s policy has always been not to assist, encourage or induce any other country to manufacture weapons of mass destruction (WMD). India Continues to fulfill its international commitments under the Chemical Weapon Convention and the Biological and Toxin Weapon Convention, to which it is a state party. Over the years India has enacted necessary legislation dealing with weapons of mass destruction as India remains committed to prevent non-State actors and terrorists from acquiring them
The effect of Biological warfare agent is unpredictable and potentially un-controllable and can be spread living vectors not only in targeted population but beyond national boundaries as well.
• Biological Weapons Convention 1972. The United Nation’s Biological weapon convention to which India, Pakistan and China are also signatories came in to force on 27 Mar 1975. According to it a signatory shall: –
(i) Never develop, produce, stockpile, acquire or retain any microbial or other Bio-agents or Toxins in quantities that have no justification
(ii) Never develop weapons, equipment’s or means of delivery to use such agents.
(iii) Destroy all agents, weapons, equipment and means of delivery within Nine months.
(iv) Not transfer technology or assist other countries to acquire such capability.
• The Weapons of Mass Destruction and their Delivery System (Prohibition of Unlawful Activities) Act 2005. This Act was enacted by the Parliament to prevent and prohibit unlawful activities, in relation to weapon of mass destruction and their delivery systems including production, development and stockpiling of biological and chemical weapons.
The Section 4(a) of the Act defines Biological weapon as :-
(i) Microbial or other biological agents, or toxins whatever their origin or method of production, of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes.
(ii) Weapon, equipment or delivery systems specially designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflicts.
The Section 4(p) of the Act defines weapon of mass destruction as any biological, chemical or nuclear weapon.
The Section 8 of the Act prohibits any person from manufacturing, acquiring, possessing, developing, transporting, transferring biological weapons.
The section 25 of the Act provides special provisions for the Central Government in discharge of its functions relating to the security and defence of India.
Limitations in defence against Biological-warfare
Inspite of the Biological Weapons Convention 1972, The defence against biological-warfare has following limitations: –
(a) Very little effort or resources are required to convert a sample into mass quantity and deliver it.
…the source and origin of the COVID-19 is not clear, and is alleged to be transfer from animal to human, but there are clear indications of this being a biological weapon or experiment going out of hand.
(b) Biological agent can be carried inside body of an animal or person and are difficult to identify and cannot be perceived by senses.
(c) It is difficult to identify genuine bio-medical research and research for Bio-warfare agent. Additionally, within the convention there is no provision for verification.
(d) The effect of Biological warfare agent is unpredictable and potentially un-controllable and can be spread living vectors not only in targeted population but beyond national boundaries as well.
The Corona Virus Disease (COVID-19)
As of 15 Feb 2020, there are unofficially 1.5 million confirmed cases of people tested positive of Corona Virus, close to 250 million people have been quarantined in China, with reports of more than 50,000 infected bodies being burned. While as per WHO report there are 49053 confirmed cases and1381 deaths.1 WHO has categorised China in high risk category.
Over 400 scientists across the globe met on 11-12 Feb 2020 to assess the knowledge about the COVID-19, method of research and funding for critical issues. While the initial report of infection started pouring in as early as in 17 Dec 2019, on 31 December 2019, WHO was informed of a cluster of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause detected in Wuhan City, capital of Hubei Province of China. The coronavirus disease (COVID-2019) was identified as the causative virus by Chinese authorities on 7 January 2020.2
The COVID-19 has already spread from China to 20 other countries. While, officially, the source and origin of the COVID-19 is not clear, and is alleged to be transfer from animal to human, but there are clear indications of this being a biological weapon or experiment going out of hand. Other unconfirmed report has stated, close to 14000 people dying from it every day. The confirmed cases are being forcefully quarantined by being locked up in small rooms without food and water.
Corona Virus: Chinese biological weapon gone rogue
The Dr. Li Wenliang, 34, one of the eight Chinese whistle-blower doctor who first reported of a strange disease killing people on 30 Dec 2019, was summoned by the local police for spreading rumours and suspiciously silenced. The news report of his death later in Feb 2020 from COVID-19 had created an uproar in the mainland China and Chinese around the world, who are suffering under iron curtain policy of the country with little rights and medium to communicate and connect with the outer world.
This act alone was adequate to confirm the little known fact that the secretive laboratory is run by military to carry out military objectives and has link with COVID-19 outbreak.
The unconfirmed reports have linked the Corona Virus to Bio-weapon experiment carried out at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (A Bio-Safety Level-4 laboratory), going out of control. In February 2020, the New York Times reported that a team led by Shi Zhengli at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were the first to identify, analyse and name the genetic sequence of the Novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), and upload it to public databases for scientists around the world to understand. The Institute applied for a patent in China for the use of – Remdesivir, an experimental drug owned by Gilead Sciences, which the Institute found inhibited the virus invitro, the swiftness of which added strength to the conspiracy theory, though accidental leak of the virus through laboratory experiments could not be ruled out.3
Subsequently, China has appointed Chen Wei, 54, a top military biological, weapon expert at Wuhan Institute of Virology to take over the command and control of the lab. This act alone was adequate to confirm the little known fact that the secretive laboratory is run by military to carry out military objectives and has link with COVID-19 outbreak.4
The further attempt to undermine the figures initially, non-disclosure of facts, secretive communication and high lethality of the virus has amplified the suspicion that it is a Bio-weapon. Sergei Kolesnikov, a member of the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences, said the propagation of the SARS virus might well have been caused by leaking a combat virus grown in bacteriological weapons labs.
According to a number of news reports, Kolesnikov claimed that the virus of a typical pneumonia (SARS) was a synthesis of two viruses (of measles and infectious parotiditis or mumps), the natural compound of which was impossible, that this mix could never appear in nature, stating, “This can be done only in a laboratory.” The head of Moscow’s epidemiological services Nikolai Filatov was quoted in the Gazeta daily as stating he believed SARS was man-made because, “there is no vaccine for this virus, its make-up is unclear, it has not been very widespread and the population is not immune to it.”5
In 05 Jul 2019, a prominent Chinese Canadian Virologist Xiangguo Qiu, and her husband and her students were suddenly evicted from National Microbiology Lab of Canada, a Canadian Level-4 lab in Winnipeg. The University of Manitoba had alleged Chinese researchers were caught stealing Corona Virus from the Canadian Lab.6 There has been speculation the case involves the improper transfer of intellectual property or biological materials to China. The NML is Canada’s only level-4 facility and one of only a few in North America equipped to handle the world’s deadliest diseases, including Ebola.
The SARS epidemic mysteriously disappeared in the summer of 2003, nine months after it arrived. Unlike other diseases, it has never returned to the places that it once terrorised. No one knows why this is so.
Corona Virus and SARS
The Chinese, probably, seems to have drawn some lessons from SARS epidemic which hit the nation in end of 2002 in Guangdong province. The characteristics of the disease are similar. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) is a viral respiratory disease of zoonotic origin caused by the SARS coronavirus (SARS-CoV).
Between November 2002 and July 2003, an outbreak of SARS in southern China caused an eventual 8,098 cases, resulting in 774 deaths reported in 17 countries (9.6% fatality rate), with the majority of cases in mainland China and Hong Kong. No cases of SARS have been reported worldwide since 2004.7 In 2002, China was in complete denial of the SARS outbreak, not only from outside world but from its own people, Newspaper, were prevented from reporting on the issue, which caused further spread of the disease. The people of Guangdong, however knew there was something frightening going on. Nurses, doctors and healthcare workers were telling their friends and family they had never seen a disease that attacked so viciously and spread so rapidly.
The SARS epidemic mysteriously disappeared in the summer of 2003, nine months after it arrived. Unlike other diseases, it has never returned to the places that it once terrorised. No one knows why this is so. In the case of Corona Virus COVID-19, Virologists, clinicians and epidemiologists still know little about it, except that it is caused by a coronavirus, that the first cases appeared to be associated with a seafood market in Wuhan close to the laboratory, and that the number of cases seems to be rising steadily8.
SARS exhibited characteristics never before observed in any animal or human virus, it did not by any means fully match the animal viruses, and contained genetic material that still remains unidentified – similar to the new coronavirus in 2019. The COVID-19 though comes from the same family of virus such as SARS and MERS, it had some unique characteristics. It is more transferable but its lethality is less than SARS virus.
Evidence suggest that the human to human transmission of the Coronavirus is higher than the SARS virus. The evidence available also suggest that the transmission is mostly through droplets and not through airborne methods. i.e. the virus is carried on droplets emitted by an infected person over a short distance such as during cough or sneeze. The droplets when comes in contact with eyes, nose, mouth or through use of infected hands, an individual may become infected. The Corona Virus also spreads through surface contact i.e. when infected person coughs or sneezes, droplet from the infected person drops on chair, table or any surface and the virus may remain alive for few days, when someone healthy touches the surface with his hands he may get infected when he touches his face.
…there is some degree of certainty that several countries are probably engaged in developing bioweapons of this nature to launch bio-terrorist attacks with possible military and economic benefits.
As per initial reports the cell size of Corona virus is large, around 400-500nm diameter and shows pneumonia like symptoms affecting throat, then blending into the nasal fluid and dripping into the trachea to enter the lungs, causing pneumonia. This process will take 5 to 6 days. Thus, personal hygiene habits like washing hands, not touching face with dirty hands is helpful. The initial reports have suggested use of saline water gargling to prevent throat infection is effective. Use of Individual Protection Kit has been found effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19.
One clear sign of a genetically-engineered bio-warfare agent was a disease caused by an uncommon (unusual, rare, or unique) agent, with lack of an epidemiological explanation. i.e. no clear idea of source. The unusual manifestation and/or geographic distribution, of with race-specific lethality of the virus increases suspicion. Recent disease outbreaks that would seem to possibly qualify as potential bio-warfare agents are AIDS, SARS, MERS, Bird Flu,
Swine Flu, Hantavirus, Lyme Disease, West Nile Virus, Ebola, Polio (Syria), Foot and Mouth Disease, the Gulf War Syndrome and Zika. In fact, thousands of prominent scientists, physicians, virologists and epidemiologists on many continents have concurred that all these viruses were lab-created and their release deliberate. The last swine flu epidemic in China has the hallmarks as well, with circumstantial evidence of the outbreak raising only questions. Undoubtedly a large number of countries are involved in carrying out research, there is some degree of certainty that several countries are probably engaged in developing bioweapons of this nature to launch bio-terrorist attacks with possible military and economic benefits.
Lessons to learn from Chinese COVID-2019 outbreak:
(a) Complete assessment of virus genome and disclosure. Dr. Maria Van Der Kerkhove from the WHO emphasized that one of the primary reasons for quick diagnosis of coronavirus diagnoses was because the Chinese government had published a full genome-mapping of the new variant within few days of the initial outbreak, making diagnosis easier.9 This is possible partially because China has invested in academic golden generation of doctoral candidates in the biological sciences over the past 15-20 years. China has large academic talent-pool in the life-sciences, especially in molecular biology, microbiology and biochemistry. India too can use a large talent pool of doctors, research labs, pharmaceutical companies if a similar situation arises.
Chinese government had built 2 specialized hospitals for the treatment of coronavirus in just one week. The swift action, scale and rapidity of the Chinese government’s infrastructure development response to the crisis is astonishing.
(b) Responding in massive ways. Since the beginning, the Chinese top government officials involved themselves, and large number of meeting attended by many government officials were conducted to set the intention for action clear. There was a relentless and focussed determination by the government.
(c) Information dissemination. Wuhan regional government’s response and dissemination of information was swift and “state of the art,” The Wuhan government’s public website had declared a red alert extremely early, they were regularly updating impressive quantity of new information in their daily updates, the same was being published since December 31st 2019/January 2020.
(d) Staggering response to development of hospital and healthcare facilities in short time. Chinese government had built 2 specialized hospitals for the treatment of coronavirus in just one week. The swift action, scale and rapidity of the Chinese government’s infrastructure development response to the crisis is astonishing. If India faces a similar situation, the government should plan to convert stadiums, public grounds and buildings into hospitals, and quarantine large sections of infected population by combining Military and private resources.
(e) Preparation of rapid response and contingency plans under Cabinet Committee of Security or Ministry of Defence. While it is common for Ministry of Defence to have contingency plans ready for all possible scenario, it is evident that in China, the Health Ministry also had ready-made and well devised contingency-plans for almost every imaginable public health emergency.
(f) Strict Implementation of quarantine In the race to curb the spread of the new strain of coronavirus the Chinese authorities have indefinitely barred 50 million people from traveling and advised them to stay home to contain the rapidly spreading virus, known as 2019-nCoV. China’s containment measures could theoretically prevent infected people from introducing the virus elsewhere in the country or the world, experts say. But the lockdown orders were likely put into effect too late and could lead to food and medicine shortages that worsen the outbreak and cause mistrust against government. Streets and stores in the usually bustling city of Wuhan, the seventh-most populous in China, are largely deserted. This would be harsh but necessary step to contain the spread of a deadly disease. Quarantine, would involve segregating infected people from those who are healthy. A cordon was implemented in West Africa in 2014 during an Ebola outbreak, prompting cries that it was inhumane to trap people in an infected area while waiting for a fatal disease to run its course.10
The expertise and the involvement of the research lab and the health care professionals should be sought at the earliest stage of detection of the Biological agent.
Necessary components of a biological-warfare contingency plan. The national action plan when a biological weapon is used should incorporate lessons learnt in the past and from similar instances like COIVD-2019 epidemic happening abroad. Depending on the scenario the following lessons can be drawn :-
• Involvement of top politico-military brass. To be able to involve top level of government, health and security agencies at an early stage to identify and contain the spread, by obtaining political and military support.
• Synergising abilities of Healthcare, Bio-Research labs. Converging abilities of indigenous health care facilities and health care workers across the national boundaries. The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has established first Bio-Safety Level-4 (BSL-4) laboratory in the premise of Microbial Containment Complex (MCC), National Institute of Virology, Pune with support of Department of Science and Technology (DST), New Delhi. Maximum Containment Laboratory [BSL-4] at MCC, Pune has been planned and designed following internationally accepted guidelines of WHO, Geneva and CDC, Atlanta. The expertise and the involvement of the research lab and the health care professionals should be sought at the earliest stage of detection of the Biological agent.
• Identification. To be able to quickly identify sick people and quickly develop an estimate and spread of the epidemic caused by a bio-weapon.
• Quarantine. To quarantine the sick and provide them the treatment. This includes quarantine at airport, seaport, railway stations, bus stations. Primarily to prevent migration from infested area to non-infested area.
• Study International precedents. To immediately assess available data, to learn what standard of care approaches were adopted in other parts of world or in previous incidents of occurrences like in China in similar cases of epidemic. Studying standards of care, therapies, medicines, equipment and detection kit required.
• Safe working environment. Creating safe working environment for healthcare workers and community. List down standard handling practices to prevent transmission, and spread. This should involve quick production and distribution of individual protection equipment.
Ensure continuous and uninterrupted funding and resources for quarantine, medical treatment and research including quick dispersal and smooth flow of logistics across the spread area of the endemic.
• Standardisation procedure to minimise wastages. To laydown standards to optimise use of health care equipment, medical resources i.e. to use minimum and limited resources for maximum benefit.
• Identify industry partners. To lay down guidelines to augment resources if the condition so requires. This would involve identifying industry partners both nationally and internationally. Create international partners. Involve WHO and world bodies at early stage.
• Research. To undertake research, understand the Bio-weapon/ disease in its full spectrum, to understand transmission dynamics, identify animal hosts, identify risk groups, conditions that make disease more severe and effectiveness of medical interventions.
• Master protocols Rapidly developing master protocols for clinical trials will accelerate the potential to assess what works and what does not, improve collaboration and comparison across different studies, streamline ethics review and optimise the evaluation of new investigational drugs, vaccines and diagnostics.
• Sharing of information. The research information on virus materials, clinical samples and data must be immediately and rapidly shared for immediate public health purposes, including information on any successful medical intervention.
• Funding. Ensure continuous and uninterrupted funding and resources for quarantine, medical treatment and research including quick dispersal and smooth flow of logistics across the spread area of the endemic.
• Communication. Use means of mass communication to communicate with public and spread awareness about – distribution and availability of Individual Protection Equipment, use of common anti-sceptics, sanitation measures and steps for avoidance.
Threat of a biological warfare is a reality. Many powerful nations continue to be involved in developing various high-risk strains of pathogens in their Bio-safety research laboratories. India’s has a difficult and high-risk neighbourhood, which has hostile intent and little adherence to international norms.
In case of such epidemic occurring in India, we must seek aid of own Bio-research labs, large pool of doctors and pharmaceutical companies to come out with solution.
There can never be an absolute defence from asymmetric warfare like use of biological weapons.
While we must have contingency plans prepared, the best way to defend against a weapon is to have a weapon of similar capability. Deterrence is created by capability to respond with equal force and letting your adversary know about your capability. India must synergise its medical and healthcare abilities and have contingency plans and course of action ready.
In case of such epidemic occurring in India, we must seek aid of own Bio-research labs, large pool of doctors and pharmaceutical companies to come out with solution. In case, of such epidemic occurring in any part of the world, India must become part of solution provider, so as to earn goodwill and contain the threat where it exists. Doing so, will have learning value and build national abilities to respond to such bio-weapon threats and synergise public and private abilities.
The government in case of such epidemic, should be able to take hard decision of quarantining large areas and population for larger interest of the country. It must be able to provide logistics and ration in such scenario of quarantine. India needs a contingency plan and responsible state actors with a plan of action ready.
Timely action is critical and can save lot of life and help bring the epidemic in control. Enactment of laws delegating roles and responsibilities in such epidemic scenario may be a required step forward in peacetime.
1 https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/ situation-reports/20200214-sitrep-25-covid-19.pdf?sfvrsn=61dda7d_2
7 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Severe_acute_respiratory_ syndrome
8 https://www.theguardian.com/global/commentisfree/2020/jan/ 23/china-coronavirus-sars-cover-up-beijing-disease-dissent