“It’s an ideal weapon because it only destroys people… It’s a virus, airborne, indestructible, self-perpetuating, multiplying beyond our calculations and all life will cease to exist everywhere… Nothing can stop the Satan Bug.” Gregor Hoffman, the insane bioscientist in the 1962 Alistair MacLean science fiction book and the 1965 film on the same (The Satan Bug), ominously described biological weapons thus.
The COVID-19 pandemic has suddenly awakened the world to the destructive potential of extreme biological events. Many see COVID-19 as a quasi-biological war in its scale, scope, duration and impact. UN secretary general Antonio Guterres has called this the biggest international crisis since World War II. Health and biosecurity have, thus, become paramount in national security in 2020.
COVID-19 illustrates the insidious nature and catastrophic potential of biological weapons. Highly transmissible and deadly, new biological agents cannot be anticipated and the time lag in finding treatment and vaccines inflicts high morbidity and mortality on defenseless populations. The latency period and mutation into different strains makes disease detection and control elusive. Mass contagion and fatalities can bring even the most powerful countries to their knees and economies to a halt. Societies can be put into turmoil and governance can suffer serious crises.
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As such, our preparedness to detect extant and potential, natural and more dangerous, human-manipulated biological agents, and biodefend in a timely way is vital. Making all our normal laboratories and medical facilities transformable into a seamless biosecurity infrastructure for quick and reliable testing, and vaccine development and deployment in telescoped time, is critical.
Any bioweapon attack or pandemic affects the armed forces’ capacity to deal with other WMDs, conventional and terrorist threats. The double jeopardy of armed forces getting weakened by the disease and their resources being diverted for pandemic response poses security challenges. Biosecurity should be mainstreamed into our defence, security and counterterrorism strategies. Ideally, a dedicated National Rapid Deployment Biosecurity Force of armed forces, police and health responders should perform frontline pandemic-related bio-defence, and disaster relief and response roles.
The COVID-19 war has exposed the challenges of differentiating between the offensive and defensive: Peaceful and aggressive purposes of biological agents. We, therefore, need to reengineer verification and certification systems for accurate differentiation. Similarly, health security and biosecurity are complementary but require distinguishing between intentional harm and inadvertent transmission.
The controversy about whether the COVID-19 virus was natural or human-engineered in a Wuhan lab and accidentally released, and the US government investigation into it, elucidates the challenges of biosafety. Hand wringing about being blind sided during the first stirrings of the pandemic in China has exposed weaknesses in the international early warning systems. Effective, credible, national and international, biointelligence and bio-surveillance systems — especially for new diseases and potential bioweapons — are critical. China’s full disclosure and cooperation, as the virus originating country, is essential.
Stopping hostile state or non-state actors from stealthily and easily developing biological weapons is imperative. Biosafety demands prevention of accidental release or theft of biological disease agents from multiple, unevenly secured research facilities — governmental and private R&D labs, biotech and virology centres of countries. These facilities need to be catalogued according to established containment/safety levels, especially for dangerous biological toxins. Protocols in case of accidents and theft need to be established for them.
National defence intelligence should incorporate medical intelligence and infectious diseases-risk assessment, and pandemic predictions. A dynamic national strategy for bio-intelligence and cooperation with friendly biosecurity powers is needed. Close coordination with the national public health systems, and keeping a careful tab on biodefence facilities is indispensable.
The COVID-19 experience has shown the lack of authoritative and independent multilateral biosurveillance mechanisms. We need to empower the WHO’s health security mechanisms to surveil and access facilities in ground zero countries, free from geopolitical pressures. India needs to propel the early reinforcement of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention with a comprehensive, legally-binding protocol on credible biosurveillance, verification and compliance mechanism at the 2021 review conference.
Biological weapons are now more amenable to be used by non-state actors. Biosafety is key to preventing and combating bioterrorism as is the non-proliferation and export control on dual-use biological materials and technologies. Implementing the UNGA Resolution 1540 of 2019 — on general and complete disarmament measures to prevent terrorists from acquiring such WMDs — assumes significance.
We have to make our infrastructure, economy and healthcare bio-attack and pandemic-proof. Protocols for re-engineering the spatial matrix of production, work, mobility and delivery of essential services and IT-based health surveillance may now have to be hardwired. As a part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of economic and health security symbiosis, India should pursue national self-sufficiency in medical and healthcare supply chains and essential goods, services and technologies, and develop a robust export capacity for global health security.
COVID-19 has hurt the origin country, but in equal measure. China’s global economic footprint and connectivity has also triggered a disastrous worldwide pandemic. We know now that in a biological war, every country will be devastated. There will be no victors and humanity will be vanquished. COVID-19 should be a morality tale to inspire all countries to recommit to abjuring the use of disease as a weapon of war, and a doctrine of universal bio-deterrence. India should mobilise international cooperation and solidarity to stop and banish the “Satan Bug” forever.
This article appeared in the print edition of May 2, 2020, under the name ‘COVID-19, a morality tale’. The writer is former assistant secretary-general of the United Nations and deputy executive director of UN Women
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