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  • Writer's pictureRaghu Raman

Understanding BioWeapons

Weapons of war fall into five broad categories. Kinetic, Chemical, Nuclear, Radiological, and Biological. Except for Kinetic (with some exceptions) — others are considered to be Weapons of Mass Destruction, capable of wiping out a large number of humans, structures, flora, fauna and the environment indiscriminately.

Kinetic weapons range from a spear, an assault rifle to an Intercontinental ballistic missile with a conventional warhead. These weapons cause damage due to their kinetic, penetrative, explosive or incendiary effect.

Nuclear weapons release tremendous destructive force using nuclear reactions. Though there are nine countries which possess nuclear weapons and all of them leverage it for deterrence, it has been used only once, during the Second World War.

Radiological weapons use radiation to poison entire areas or individuals. A Radiological Dispersion Device or the ‘Dirty Bomb’ is an example. A nuclear weapon is by default also a radiological weapon.

Chemical weapons are munitions that use toxic chemicals to inflict damage — ranging from temporary incapacitation, grievous injury to death. Though the Geneva Protocol prohibits the use of chemical weapons, about 25 countries, including India, have at some point held stockpiles and a few have used them in conflict.

Biological Weapons are different from all of these because they use living organisms like bacteria and viruses to inflict damage ranging from allergy, incapacitation, to death of humans, animals and fauna. Over 170 countries are signatories to the Biological Weapons Convention that prohibits their stockpiling or usage, however, several countries hold them for defensive research and general medicinal purposes within controlled laboratories.

There are two sub-groups within Bioweapons. One that affects animals, like the ‘Foot and Mouth’ disease virus, which caused panic and economic damage in the UK in 2001 & 2007, but are harmless to humans. The second group affects humans in the form of contagious bacteria and viruses like smallpox or non-contagious like anthrax. Microbes capable of triggering diseases like cholera, plague, diphtheria, chikungunya etc have all been weaponised by one nation or the other at some point of time.

Terrorists have used biological weapons several times in the past. The Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo used anthrax in 1993 (and also released the nerve gas Sarin in 1995 in the Tokyo subway). Like a macabre Hollywood movie, Shoko Asahara, the founder of the cult was hoping to cause an epidemic that would trigger a world war ending with him ruling the world! In September 2001, letters laced with anthrax were sent to several media and government offices resulting in five deaths. While all these attempts were failures, like any other terror attack they caused panic far disproportionate to actual casualties.

Interestingly in 1984, disciples of Osho were accused of carrying out a bioterror attack in Oregon using the Salmonella typhimurium bacteria causing severe food poisoning of over 700 people. The earliest documented, though contested, case of Biowarfare was in the 1760s when the North American Colonists deliberately distributed smallpox infected blankets to Native American Indians. Given that the colonists used every brutal method to decimate the natives, including razing their food supplies to force them into starvation, historians consider it very plausible. In any case, smallpox brought by the colonists from England ravaged the natives because of their non-immunity, whether deliberately or inadvertently.

Bioweapons have special appeal to terrorists for several reasons. They are inexpensive, easily obtained or created, can be transported without detection and once infected, have the ability to spread rapidly in the target population, triggering public panic and economic disruption causing the government to be distracted at the cost of every other activity.

However, the uncontainable nature of bioweapons makes it unviable as a military asset by states for two reasons. Firstly, biological weapons have the threat of spreading uncontrollably and also mutating into strains which cannot be cured with antidotes hence damaging the attacking country as well. Secondly, military commanders do not prefer weapons whose damage cannot be controlled or limited. In a highly interconnected world, they seek solutions to subjugate the enemy not exterminate them. It is counterproductive and foolhardy for any country to use weapons of mass destruction unless they face an existential crisis.

There are simply too many uncontrolled variables at play in indiscriminately destructive weapons, which is anathema to military strategists. That is why strongarm leaders engage in nuclear weapon sabre rattling but keep the conflict below the threshold. This is also the reason why nations with nuclear weapons develop warheads for lower yields rather than higher, to limit the area of damage. Barring the possibility of a rogue element or a non-state player — it is highly unlikely that any state would deliberately use a volatile bioweapon like the COVID-19 — which would most certainly get out of their control.

The countermeasure strategy to a biological outbreak requires developing the ability to track the epidemic at the earliest stages, contain them quickly, carry out a risk assessment, minimise damage to lives and revert to economic normalcy as soon as possible. The silver lining of this pandemic, if any, is that it is a wake-up call to revamp the hygiene, drills and medical infrastructure, regardless of whether it was accidental or a weaponised.

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

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