Does novel coronavirus pose a bioterrorism threat?

biological and chemical weapons.
"Bioterrorism could kill more than nuclear war, but no one is ready to deal with it." -- Bill Gates

By Moinak Maiti and Pravin Jadhav

The world is now facing the consequences of the Covid-19 outbreak that cost heavily in terms of human lives across the continents. The developed nations are affected the most by the pandemic. WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says the pandemic is not just a public health crisis, but a crisis that will touch every sector. Figure 1 presents the timeline of the outbreak that caused huge misery across the globe due to the large number of deaths and infections.

This is not the first instance of an epidemic break out across the globe. History has witnessed several epidemics before, so what is different about the Covid-19 pandemic? The way epidemics affect economies, individuals and nations is complex, chaotic and nonlinear. The effects of an epidemic reflect a complex interaction of individual, economic and social factors.

Bill Gates has warned the world leaders that biological warfare is a much more potent threat to mankind than a nuclear war. The COVID-19 pandemic has far-reaching implications as the entire world is facing unemployment, diminishing purchasing power and recession. The outbreak is more lethal than the previous pandemics. Covid-19 has already impacted billions of people that makes it an effective biological weapon. While the novel coronavirus is not a biological weapon, one should not overlook the possibilities of the dangerous virus being used as one.

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Biological warfare and bioterrorism

Biological warfare and bioterrorism are not new phenomena, with several instances reported in history since 600 BC (Gottschalk & Preiser, 2005 and Barras, & Greub,2014). In 600 BC, Solon used toxic herb hellebore during the siege of Krissa. Later, pathogens and chemicals were introduced as an alternative to toxic herbs. The major milestones in the development of biological warfare are represented in table 1. Most of the events saw the use of killer pathogens like bacteria and viruses causing leprosy, plague, malaria, anthrax and smallpox. Later, toxic gases like Mustard, Sarin, and Tabun were used as bio-chemical weapons. The novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19 belongs to the family of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus that broke out in 2003 in China. In 2012, MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) was detected and now Covid-19 broke out in 2019 in Wuhan.

The novel coronavirus can be more dangerous compared to pathogens that caused leprosy, plague, malaria, anthrax, and smallpox. Covid-19 may not be a bio weapon, but table 1 highlights its potential to become one.

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Covid-19 impact on lives, livelyhoods

Gottschalk & Preiser (2005) study, “Bioterrorism: is it a real threat?”, highlighted the threat posed by biological weapons and why government agencies need to be aware of it. Covid-19 has the potential to become a weapon in the hands of terrorists through direct and indirect impact on the environment. To understand it, one has to look into the impact it has had on the world.

The direct effect of Covid-19 is evident in every sphere of the economy. The Covid-19 pandemic resulted in governments imposing severe movement restrictions. As a result, production dwindled, supply chains collapsed, unemployment increased and global economies entered into recession. Globalisation (Maiti 2018 a&b) that results in connections between world economies is almost stalled due to travel restrictions and restrictions on international trade. The Covid-19 pandemic has led to reduced greenhouse gas emissions, but this has proved to be a temporary phenomenon.

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The consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic haven’t resulted in the direct military interventions, yet armed forces are increasingly getting involved. A Canadian press headline says: “This is war: Military prepares for fight against coronavirus pandemic”[1]. The question here is, how does the military prepare itself for fight against the coronavirus pandemic in Canada? Definitely it does not involve traditional military equipment such as guns and bullets.

  • Troops are used during floods, forest fires and other national emergencies.
  • In the Covid -19 pandemic, troops are being used in enforcement of quarantine and for running of essential services such as transportation, building shelters and facilities, setting up communications and medical support.

Covid-19 pandemic has created a situation of medical emergency across the world in terms of beds, ventilators, medical staff and medicines. Over utilisation of medical resources affects overall sustainability. Piles of medical waste from the treatment of Covid-19 patients need proper disposal. While the positive impact of Covid-19 is visible in terms of air quality and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, the invisible impact of medical waste piling up far outweighs the positive effects on the environment. To maintain overall hygiene among the medical staff and health workers involved in combating the pandemic, water is used in large quantities, which may lead to water scarcity in the near future. Increased demand for sanitizers and medical supplies could lead to large scale corruption. All these create vulnerabilities for bioterrorism. All these support the findings of Radosavljevic (2019). “Environment has complex and permanent relations with biological warfare in comparison to other war types (conventional, nuclear, chemical)”.

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Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines bioterrorism as the intentional release of viruses, bacteria, or other germs that can sicken or kill people, livestock, or crops. Due to the following reasons, Covid-19 could be a real threat as a biological weapon — availability, ease of production and dissemination, potential for high mortality rates, and health impact.

Possible solutions to mitigate the threat

  • Several countries notably the US, UK, India, Russia, China are working to introduce Covid-19 vaccines. Some vaccines are already available in the market.
  • Domestic and international agencies need to work together in framing strategies, conducting medical research and in maintaining transparency to defeat bioterrorism.
  • Need to promote AI-based technologies to check the development of biological weapons.
  • Health authorities need to be better prepared not just for the next pandemic, but also against bioterrorism and other public health threats.
  • Need to train skilled scientists and staff to combat sophisticated bio warfare in future.]
  • Governmental and international agencies need to work together in framing strategies to address environmental issues such as scarcity of water and advance sewage management to counter indirect effects of bioterrorism.
  • Food and drug administration agencies responsible for licensing of vaccines, treatments, diagnostic tests, and other tools for responding to biological threats need to play an important role in future.
  • Real-time monitoring of all possible delivery channels by which biological warfare agents could be released such as air, explosives, food and water.

Conlusions: Policy implications

The study finds that Covid-19 virus could be a threat in the hands of terror organisations and rough nations because of its availability, ease of production and dissemination, high mortality rate and its health impact. It offers several direct and indirect solutions to mitigate the threat of bioterrorism. The study presents the future direction for conducting comprehensive future research in the area. Agencies involved in bioweapon response at the domestic and global levels need to work collectively to eliminate the possibility of the use of novel coronavirus by terrorists. There is a demand for strong collective public health emergency response planning.

(Dr Moinak Maiti is Associate Professor, Department of Finance, National Research University-Higher School of Economics, Saint Petersburg. Dr Pravin Jadhav is Assistant Professor, Department of HSS, Institute of Infrastructure, Technology, Research And Management, Ahmedabad.)

References

Barras, V., & Greub, G. (2014). History of biological warfare and bioterrorism. Clinical Microbiology and Infection, 20(6), 497-502.

Docea, A. O., Tsatsakis, A., Albulescu, D., Cristea, O., Zlatian, O., Vinceti, M., … & Dumanov, J. M. (2020). A new threat from an old enemy: Re‑emergence of coronavirus. International journal of molecular medicine, 45(6), 1631-1643.

Gottschalk, R., & Preiser, W. (2005). Bioterrorism: is it a real threat?. Medical microbiology and immunology, 194(3), 109-114.

Maiti, M. (2018 a), “India’s services: sector, trade and employment”, International Journal of Law and Management, Vol. 60 No. 6, pp. 1377-1392. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJLMA-08-2017-0179.

Maiti, M. (2018 b), “Scope for alternative avenues to promote financial access to MSMEs in developing nation evidence from India”, International Journal of Law and Management, Vol. 60 No. 5, pp. 1210-1222. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJLMA-06-2017-0141

Radosavljevic, V. (2019). Environmental health and bioterrorism. Encyclopedia of environmental health, 450.

Riedel, S. (2004, October). Biological warfare and bioterrorism: a historical review. In Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings (Vol. 17, No. 4, pp. 400-406). Taylor & Francis.

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