Biological Weapons

Source: By H Khasnobis: The Statesman

A biological weapon, also called a germ weapon, is a disease-producing agents that can take the form of bacteria, viruses, fungi, toxins or other biological agents that may be used as weapons against humans, animals or plants. The threat from biological weapons is significant. Small quantities of lethal germs can be easily concealed, transported and released into susceptible populations causing mass casualties. Biological weapons have low or almost zero visibility and they are easy to deliver and strike.

But their effects are delayed. Even the occurrence of only a small number of infections can create an enormous psychological impact. Everyone feels threatened and nobody knows what will happen next. The increasing fear that biological weapons may be used against military and civilian populations has led to efforts to develop adequate response strategies. The direct use of infectious agents and poison against enemy personnel is an ancient practice in military warfare.

Encyclopaedia Britannica mentions that biological warfare dates back to the ancient era, when warring groups would try to poison enemy soldiers with rotting or diseased corpses, infect cattle and horses or spread contagion through civilian populations. Following the horrors of the First World War, the 1925 Geneva Protocol under the auspices of the League of Nations prohibited the use of chemical and biological weapons in international armed conflicts.

However, that did not prevent Japan from using them in China during the Second World War, contaminating air, water and food in at least eleven Chinese cities. There were about 2000 deaths among Japanese troops because they were inadequately trained to avoid infection from contaminated water. The early attempts at biowarfare were rather primitive and caused only limited casualties.

Even though the Geneva Protocol was the first important milestone towards a comprehensive ban on biological weapons, several states ratified the protocol with reservations, both with respect to the protocol’s applicability and also pertaining to the use of chemical or biological weapons in retaliation. These reservations effectively rendered the Geneva Protocol to merely a no-first-use agreement. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union as well as the US and its allies built huge stockpiles of biological weapons. These weapons became true weapons of mass destruction.

The United States ended its biological weapons programme in 1969 by a unilateral declaration of President Nixon and converted the facilities and workers to peaceful biomedical and biodefence research. US allies followed this lead. The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) of 1972 effectively prohibited 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 Convention was negotiated by the Conference of the Committee on Disarmament in Geneva. It opened for signature on 10 April 1972 and came into force on 26 March 1975. The Convention has reached almost universal membership with 183 States Parties, including Palestine and five signatories ~ Egypt, Haiti, Somalia, Syria and Tanzania. Ten states have neither signed nor ratified the BWC. They are Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Eritrea, Israel, Kiribati, Micronesia, Namibia, South Sudan and Tuvalu.

The BWC is the cornerstone of the multilateral disarmament regime and has the objective to rid the world of biological and toxin weapons. Considered a descendent of the 1925 Geneva Protocol, the Convention is comparatively small and comprises only 15 articles. Biological weapons programmes can be concealed easily and the BWC contains no provision for inspection and reporting. As a result, many countries have been suspected of developing biological warfare agents and some modern armed forces have prepared defensive measures.

These include battlefield sensors, protective garments and masks, sterilizing agents and vaccines. The Soviet Union during the heyday of the Cold War maintained an enormously offensive biological weapons programme after ratifying the BWC. After disintegration, Russia said that the programme had been terminated but questions remained about what happened to elements of the Soviet programme. There were fears that the biological weapon technologies may have become accessible to other nations and nonstate actors. In 1992, Boris Yeltsin ultimately admitted that the Soviet Union had clandestinely continued its biological weapons programme in violation of the BWC.

Iraq violated its commitment as a signatory state with its biological weapons programme, which was uncovered by the UN Special Commission on Iraq. The event led to Operation Desert Fox from 16-19 December 1998 during which the United States and Britain bombed Iraqi facilities. A number of sites associated with biological weapons were destroyed. Iraq became a state party to BWC after the war. Biological weapons can be used not only to attack humans, but also livestock and crops.

They can be deadly and highly contagious. Diseases caused by such weapons will not confine themselves to national borders but will spread rapidly around the world. Although of natural origin, the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa was widely recognized as demonstrating the lack of preparedness in the global health and humanitarian system to respond to large scale disease outbreaks. It also sent an alarming message of potential consequences that could result from a deliberate release of biological agents or toxins by state or non-state actors.

In addition to tragic loss of lives, the economic consequences of such an event would be devastating. All states are, therefore, potentially at risk. In 1970, the World Health Organization released a report of estimated casualties from a hypothetical biological attack based on the release of 50 kg of an agent by an aircraft flying along a 2 km path upwind on a city of half a million population. For agent Anthrax, the estimate was 125,000 afflictions and 95,000 fatalities. Today in 2020, fifty years later, with rapid strides in weapon technology and delivery system, the quotient for afflictions and fatalities would be unimaginable.

Perhaps it will annihilate the entire hypothetical city. The same concern was expressed by Bill Gates at the 2017 Munich Security Conference. He said, “Whether it occurs by a quirk of nature or at the hand of terrorist, epidemiologists say a fast-moving airborne pathogen could kill more than 30 million people in less than a year. And they say there is a reasonable probability the world will experience such an outbreak in the next 10-15 years”. The outbreak of coronavirus pandemic happened in late 2019 just two years after the ominous apprehensions were expressed by Bill Gates.

Covid-19 has overwhelmed the public health system of rich countries. A virus pandemic does not discriminate between high and low, rich and poor. It is too early to take a call how the pandemic started, whether as a natural phenomenon, or negligence or an accidental release. The general opinion is that the pandemic is nature’s way of teaching mankind an important lesson that excessive exploitation of it has disastrous consequences.

Whatever be the reason, Covid- 19 has given a strong warning to the world to remain better prepared to prevent or mitigate the effects of such biological risks that carry the power and potential to annihilate millions of lives. The 21st century has been called the age of biotechnology. Advances in biotechnology and life sciences are taking place at an unprecedented and accelerating pace, enhanced by the effects of globalization and ever improving information and communication technology capabilities.

While such developments bring unparalleled benefits and are by and large to be welcomed, they could also be misused due to inherent dual use nature of life sciences. All BWC state parties must pay continuing attention to these new trends in science and technology. Close cooperation between the security, scientific, public health, agriculture, industry, academia and civil society is required and needs to take place at the national, regional and international levels.

It has to be ensured that actions to defend against biological warfare do not detract from critical bio-medical research and public health responses. Difficult political decisions are needed to achieve the right balance of protection. There is only one world to live in. World leaders irrespective of their political affiliations must take responsible steps to protect humanity against attacks with biological weapons. Defending against biological weapons is critical to global security. Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of UN said in 2006,”Disease as a weapon is repugnant to the conscience of mankind”.