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Biological warfare, also known as germ warfare, is the use of biological toxins or infectious agents such as bacteria, viruses, insects, and fungi with the intent to kill, harm or incapacitate humans, animals or plants, as an act of war. Biological weapons are living organisms or replicating entities.Biological weapons disseminate disease-causing organisms or toxins to harm or kill humans, animals or plants. They can be deadly and highly contagious. Diseases caused by such weapons would not confine themselves to national borders and could spread rapidly around the world. The consequences of the deliberate release of biological agents or toxins by state or non-state actors could be dramatic. In addition to the tragic loss of lives, such events could also cause food shortages, environmental catastrophes, devastating economic loss, and widespread illness, fear and mistrust among the public.This aspect of biological warfare is very significant and holding of these agents/ virus/ bacteria/ fungi with irresponsible powers may cause mayhem which would be difficult to control. The current Pandemic on account of COVID-19 is a live example of that.
Historical Perspective– The use of biological agents is not a new concept, some of the important documented uses through the ages are as follows:-
- First known use was in 400 BC when arrows dipped decomposed body/ blood mixed with manure were used by Scythian Archers. In the Battle of Eurymedon in 190 BC, Hannibal won a naval victory over King Eumenes II of Pergamon by firing earthen vessels full of venomous snakes into the enemy ships.
- During the battle of Tortona in the 12th century AD, Barbarossa used the bodies of dead and decomposing soldiers to poison wells. During the siege of Kaffa in the 14th century AD, the attacking Tatar forces hurled plague infected corpses into the city in an attempt to cause an epidemic within enemy forces. This was repeated in 1710 CE, when the Russians besieging Swedish forces at Reval in Estonia catapulted bodies of people who had died from plague.
- During the French and British War in the 18th century AD, British forces gave blankets used by smallpox victims to the Native Americans in a plan to spread the disease.
- During World War I, the German Army developed anthrax,glanders, cholera, and a wheat fungus specifically for use as biological weapons. They allegedly spread plague in St. Petersburg, Russia, infected mules with glanders in Mesopotamia, and attempted to do the same with the horses of the French Cavalry.
- During World War II, Japanese forces operated a secret biological warfare research facility (Unit 731) in Manchuria that carried out human experiments on prisoners. They exposed more than 3,000 victims to plague, anthrax, syphilis and other agents.
- In 1942, the United States formed the War Research Service. Anthrax and botulinum toxin initially were investigated for use as weapons. The British also tested anthrax bombs on Gruinard Island off the North West Coast of Scotland in 1942 and 1943.
- The United States continued research on various offensive biological weapons during the 1950s and 1960s. From 1951-1954, harmless organisms were released off both coasts of the United States to demonstrate the vulnerability of American cities to biological attacks. This weakness was tested again in 1966 when a test substance was released in the New York City subway system.
- During the Vietnam War, Viet Cong guerrillas used needle-sharp punji sticks dipped in faeces to cause severe infections after an enemy soldier had been stabbed.
- In 1979, an accidental release of anthrax from a weapons facility in Sverdlovsk, USSR, killed at least 66 people.
- The last known attack of Anthrax was in the USA. After the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, letters filled with a white powder containing anthrax spores were mailed to two U.S. Senators’ offices and news media agencies along the East Coast. Authorities recovered four letters, postmarked September 18, 2001, and October 9, 2001. The powder form allowed the anthrax to float in the air and for it to be breathed in. The powder from these letters contaminated the postal facilities they were processed through as well as the buildings where they were opened.
Relevant Conventions/ Treaties to control the deter Nations indulging in Bio Warfare–
- To avoid using these weapon, the ‘Geneva Protocol’ of 1925 was signed by 108 nations and entered into force on 08 Feb 1928. This was the first multilateral agreement that extended prohibition of chemical agents to biological agents. Unfortunately, no method for verification of compliance was addressed.
- The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) effectively prohibits the development, production, acquisition, transfer, stockpiling and use of biological and toxin weapons. It was the first multilateral disarmament treaty banning an entire category of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The BWC is a key element in the international community’s efforts to address WMD proliferation and it has established a strong norm against biological weapons. The Convention has reached almost universal membership with 183 States Parties and four Signatory States. The Convention was negotiated by the Conference of the Committee on Disarmament in Geneva, Switzerland. It opened for signature on 10 April 1972 and entered into force on 26 March 1975. The BWC supplements the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which had prohibited only the use of biological weapons.
Biological Warfare a Continued Saga
Despite international condemnation and institutional checks and balances the efforts to remain ready to initiate the Biological warfare by nations go on unabated because, it is a low cost option, which can give very rich dividends. Some of the aspects of Biological war which merit consideration are as follows:-
- Surprise can be achieved very easily by the initiator of the operations.
- Once initiated it is very difficult to control it, in terms of scope, spread and extent.
- In the current state of globalised world there is a likelihood of collateral damages to the unintended targets also. Besides physical damage to health of people and damage to economy, it can cause psychological damage to those affected by it and also those who are fighting against it and finally even those who live in the constant fear of getting affected by it.
- A biological war can cause extensive damage to life, assets and economy. In fact it may usher in new normal as for as life style is concerned.
- It calls for an extensive research and development to find the vector which can cause maximum damage, which can also be highly time consuming and also similar exercise is needed to arrive at the anti-dote to tackle it.
COVID-19 Pandemic: A Classical form of Biological warfare
Damages to Human Life-
|Element under consideration||Time Line||European
|America||South And South East Asia||India|
|Population affected (in percentage terms)||2020||10.2||12||47.4||17.9|
|Covid Deaths||06 Jun 2021||10,45,439||17,62,703||452,279||346,784|
|Percent of global deaths||28%||47%||12.1%||9.3%|
It is a tragedy whose end is still not seen, because of the mutation the CORONA Virus (SARS-COV-2) is undergoing. Some mutations can lead to changes in a virus’s characteristics in terms of transmission or severity. So far hundreds of variations of this virus have been identified worldwide since January 2020- The latest being referred as Delta Plus. The Delta variant of COVID-19, found in India was predominantly responsible for the surge of the deadly second wave of the pandemic. But now a mutation of that variant has emerged, called ‘Delta Plus’, which is a cause of concern. Some scientists worry that the mutation, coupled with other existing features of the Delta variant, could make it more transmissible. The world death count now exceeds 3.9 million and is heading for 500 deaths / million. In India second wave has been almost 3.6 % more lethal as compared to first wave. Which also kind of confirms that the lethality enhances with mutations. Another significant observation is that the death rate in India is twice as high as average of South and East Asia. India accounts for 76% of the deaths in the region with only 38 % of the population of the region. A perusal of the Worldometer shows that as on 27 June China had only 91,732 people reported to be affected by the virus and deaths being a meagre figure of 4636. This trend clearly reflects that China is affected minimally, probably she was prepared to face the onslaught for having initiated the same.This Pandemic also had a devastating impact on the world economy. In 2020 Global Stock Markets experienced their wurst crash since 1987. In the first three months of 2020, the G-20 economies fell 3.4%, year on year and the income loss by the workers amounted to $3.5 trillion. The International Labour Organisation stated on 07 Apr 2020 that a 6.7% loss of job hours in the second quarter of 2020 was predicted, which in real terms works out to be 195 million full time jobs. One of the major problem of a Biological warfare is that, it cannot be controlled and once initiated it does not differentiate between friend and foe. Even China lost as many as 5 million jobs.India initially had a bad time. In India, the near-term impact of the outbreak impacted the supply chains of major conglomerates, especially pharmaceuticals, fertilisers, automobiles, textiles and electronics. A severe impact on global trade logistics also happened due to disruption of logistics in mainland China, with the combined risk due to regional geopolitical tensions, wider trade wars and Brexit. The stock market took a bearish mode in response to COVID-19 in the initial phase. Oil has plummeted to 18-year low of $22 per barrel in March, and Foreign Portfolio Investors (FPIs) withdrew huge amounts from India (about $ 571.4 million). While lower oil prices will shrunk the current account deficit, but the reverse capital flows expanded it. Rupee continuously kept depreciating and the MSMEs underwent a severe cash crunch. The IMF projected in its World Economic Outlook released in Oct 2020 that the Indian economy will contract by 10.3 % in the financial year 2020-21. TheIMF Report further adds that all economies – emerging and advanced – will witness contraction during this year, with China being the only exception (May be they were better prepared on account of having initiated the Biological Warfare!). As per Its projection the Global economy was expected to contract 4.4 per cent during 2020.
COVID-19: A Precursor of Biological Warfare
An Appraisal of Chinese Strategy– It is becoming increasingly clear now that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is increasingly becoming highly irresponsible and it is time that the China’s vicious adventurism of employing bioweapons in its military strategies is taken note of, by the World. There is substantial evidence in the domain of investigative journalism which suggests that the Corona VIRUS had originated “in the Wuhan lab. Whether it was done deliberately or accidentally will decide whether it was part of a bioweapon strategy by China or just an honest accident. While it is worrisome to realise that a number of nations indeed prepare for bio war (whether they use it or not is a matter of choice) but the bigger worry at the moment is the possibility that they may fall into the hands of unscrupulous and/or radical, terrorist groups. This is evident from the alleged role of Aum Shinrikyo in spreading anthrax in Japan. Similarly, there were reports that Al-Qaida tried to acquire biological weapons. Australian Journalist Anthony Klan, has also made a sensational revelation that the Wuhan Institute of Virology of China and the Pakistan’s military establishment have entered into a joint collaboration to produce “emerging infectious diseases” and “anthrax”. Looks credible in view of the close collaboration between the two countries.The recently convened “Global Study of Origins of SARS-CoV-2: China Part” conducted by Joint WHO-China Study has arrived at inconclusive evidence, the report concludes, “No firm conclusion therefore about the role of the Huanan market in the origin of the outbreak, or how the infection was introduced into the market, can currently be drawn”. The report recommended further study to arrive at the origin of the VIRUS. In fact, the report generated more questions about the origin of virus than answers. It may be noted here that the WHO report has been subjected to a lot of criticism. The Director General of WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stated as reported in ABC News that “I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough.”In this regard, it is pertinent to go before 2019, to establish the fact that China has initiated number of steps to produce bioweapons. The same was mentioned in the Chinese official daily Xinhua, dated January 4, 2018 with a caption titled “China’s first P4 laboratory is officially operational to study the world’s most dangerous pathogens.” The report added that “Wuhan National Biosecurity (level 4) Laboratorywill provide China with a complete and internationally advanced biosecurity system in which Chinese researchers can study the world’s most dangerous pathogens.” It is interesting to note here that after the opening of the lab, the US Embassy in China sent its scientists to the lab and as reported in the Washington Post, dated April 14, 2020, and titled “State Department cables warned of safety issues at Wuhan lab studying bat coronaviruses.” Former CDC Director Robert Redfield in an interview told CNN that “Covid virus was originated in a lab” which was reproduced in the Axios, titled “Ex-CDC director says he believes coronavirus originated in Wuhan lab” dated March 26, 2021. A recent research publication highlighted the fact that “that the theory of natural origin for SARS-CoV-2 may not be correct and the alternative theory of the origin of this virus in an escaped virus from a project may be the more likely cause.” Thus there is a need for further scrutiny of China’s bioweapons strategy by the international community. One acknowledgeable fact that the scientific community will not deny is that China always pursued a double standard despite being a signatory to the Biological Weapon Convention in 1984. It has been highlighted by the US as early as that 1993, the clandestine biological weapon programme was initiated by the Chinese Communist Party and its leadership.
All this confirms that China never bothered to inform the global community and committed glaring mistakes (deliberate omissions?) regarding Covid-19, despite being a signatory to the Biological Weapon Convention. The Nuclear Information Project (NIP) in its report had also mentioned that China possesses an advanced biotechnology infrastructure as well as the requisite munitions production capabilities necessary to develop, produce and weaponize biological agents.” China has adopted a new policy called “Military-Civil Fusion” to add military strength. Under this plan, the Chinese government strongly advocated closer cooperation between military and civilian sectors to make China a great power. The plan also emphasised extensive use of “interdisciplinary biology” along with other areas like electronics, nanotechnology, etc. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has also taken keen interest in “seizing the strategic opportunity of biotech development” and under 13th Five year plan from 2016-2020 emphasised “bio-breeding, and other next-generation biotech products and services”. All this is in tune with the Chinese thought of ‘Middle Kingdom Concept’, which they interpret as their divine right to hegemonize the world. The Chinese strategy appears to integrate bioweapon programme as part of its defence strategy. This was also emphasised by Zhang Shibo, a former President of National Defence University who in his book New Highland of War emphasised the use of “biotechnology” for augmenting an “offensive capability”. China’s quest for achieving status of global power by employing bioweapons was succinctly outlined by Qiao Lang and Wang Xiangsui, two serving army officers of PLA, in their book published in 1999, and titled “Unrestricted Warfare: China’s Master Plan to Destroy America.”
Related Threats- China’s attempts to use biological vectors as weapons is a serious matter but its use by non-state actors/ terrorists is an even bigger threat. More so unlike nuclear biological vectors are inexpensive and can be used to cause damage locally with a deadly effect. In the last 100 years, the United States and the international community have experienced multiple acts of terrorism and bioterrorism which have targeted civilians. Some of these attacks are as follows:-
- World War I: Germany launched a biological sabotage campaign in France, Romania, Russia, and the United States by infecting horses and mules with glanders, a virulent disease
- 1972: Two college students, Allen Schwander and Stephen Pera, were arrested for planning to poison the Chicago water supply with typhoid bacteria
- 1984: The Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s (Osho) followers in Oregon attempted to affect a local election by infecting doorknobs and salad bars in restaurants with Salmonella typhimurium bacteria
- 1993: Aum Shinrikyo religious group released anthrax in Tokyo
- 2001: Anthrax-laced of infectious anthrax were delivered to news media offices and the US Congress.
An Appraisal of India’s Readiness to deal with Bio Warfare
- Awareness generation among the masses that it is not only Govt which is responsible but each one of us can contribute to this battle. Immunity building through yoga and traditional m divine system of AYUSH needs to be popularised.
- India spends only 9-12 % on R&D as against US- 40% and UK-25%
- Capacity Available–
- Beds: India ranks 155 of 167 nations
- Shortage of doctors: shortage is 600,000, nurses: 2 million.
- AYUSH doctors shortage 86.6%.
- Other health worker: 13.33% short.
- NDRF: not capable to handle Pandemic.
- State: organisation inadequacy to coordinate effort of all agencies including armed forces, corporates and NGOs.
- Indian Armed Forces– Although a rudimentary capability to handle CBRN exists but it needs to be further strengthened.
- Domestic Pharma Industry– Presently India faces 50 % shortage of critical drugs, raw material for vaccine- capacity for vaccine production needs to be ramped up.
- Industry– India still depends on substantially on import for a number of critical equipment- capacity needs to be ramped up to produce oxygen , ventilators and other items for health care.
- More Budget– India spends only 0.34% of GDP on health care as against US-19.1%- India needs to enhance budget allocation on health.
- Vaccine– If 40% of the population gets vaccinated, it reduces the risk of infection by 85% and 87% of death- Therefore there is a need to build up infrastructure and organisation from producing vaccine to administering and finally monitoring it.
It is interesting to realise that Chinese thought process from the time of Sun Tzu on strategic issues has not changed. Sun Tzu had postulated, “If one party is at war with another, and the other party does not realise it is at war, the party who knows it’s at war almost always has the advantage and wins the war.”  This is the essence of using bio-weapons a s part of China’s strategy to forcing her adversaries in submission to her dictates and though the inquiry on origin of COVID-19 is yet to complete but the World has changed. Now her adversaries will have to get prepared for more such attacks. The vulnerability of the immediate neighbours is quite substantial because of the common water channels, common environment and also the movement across the border.
Although China’s main target is USA with a view to dethrone the latter from the Sole super power’s role, but her immediate neighbours like India will have to revisit her policies to get ready for an offensive by China, whose arsenal will now include among other weapons systems, bio-weapons also because it is difficult to pin point the Chinese complicity and the damages it causes to life and economy is devastating to say the least. It may also be noted that there are factors which impact capacity to absorb the shock and capability to respond. Important elements in this regard are; intrinsic strength of the economy, capacity of indigenous Pharma industry to fight with the international pharma clique for whom such situations provide an opportunity to profiteer, capacity of the indigenous industry to transform quickly to start producing equipment needed to respond to the emerging situation, intellectual equity of medical professionals to deal with the situation and finally indigenous Research and development Set up to identify the problem and come out with necessary vaccine.
Some Random Thoughts on Combating Strategy- What should be the strategy to deal with this new form of warfare. There is a need to develop capacity in terms of robust health infrastructure (Hospitals, beds, isolation centres, testing & tracing and equipment), doctors, nursing staff & other health workers, better surveillance system to anticipate onset of attack (related capability to assess the degree of damage the vector is likely to cause), Industrial capacity to provide indigenous equipment support, research and development to prepare in advance for the likely attack and capability to respond to such attacks without damage to life and property. Some other enabling factors to deal with the biological war are as follows:-
- One of the important element of the response strategy which can fetch rich dividends will be generating awareness among the common citizens to know the early manifestations of the problems so that they can communicate to concerned authorities and the local administration should develop Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to initiate action Suo moto. In this connection it is important to ensure that rumour mongering and hoarding of vital medicines and other related materials be made a cognizable offence so that artificial scarcity is not allowed to happen.
- Although in case of India the Disaster management (DM) Act -2005, once invoked gives powers to Home Secretary as the Chairman of national Executive Council extra ordinary powers to deal with executives on ground to deal with the Pandemic besides using Disaster Relief Fund. There is another law, namely 1897 Epidemic disease s Act (Sec-2, Sec-2A, Sec-3 and Sec-4), which empowers the Central Govt to issue the advisory and helps the State Govts to deal with the epidemic. However this law is quite out dated. Also DM Act-2005 also needs to be reviewed in view of the extra ordinary situation on account of Pandemic.
- One of the areas which needs immediate attention is the capability of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) to deal with Bio Warfare. With its present organisation its capability in responding to a biological attack is quite limited and it needs to be built up comprehensively in terms of early warning, medical support and response &relief.
- Yet another enabling factor is hygiene and sanitation. Good hygiene and sanitation can help to attenuate the impact of the vector.
Therefore it can be concluded that the Biological War poses an enormous challenge to the National Security and an all-out effort is needed to prepare to face this challenge and thereafter successfully defeat it..
Author – Maj Gen AK Chaturvedi, AVSM, VSM (Retd) is a retired Indian Army General Officer who has served in Jammu & Kashmir, NE, Andman Nikobar on various appointments at Command and Army HQs. . He is Vice Chairman of Think Tank, “STRIVE”, after retirement is pursuing his favorite hobby of writing for newspapers, journals, and think tanks.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the STRIVE.
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