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Canary in the Bioweapon Coal Mine: The lessons of Covid 19 pandemic

Covid 19 is the canary in the coal mine, warning humanity against trying to harness the destructive power of pathogens whose lethal nature is simply the consequence of their evolution. It is only when we mess with their natural design to fashion weapons that horrors visit the world.

ET CONTRIBUTORS|
Last Updated: Apr 05, 2020, 09.39 AM IST
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Many believe the odds of lab-created pathogens being accidentally released — triggering a pandemic — are actually higher than that of a natural pandemic.
Coronavirus

COVID-19 CASES

Confirmed
216,919
Deaths
6,075
By Prakash Chandra

In recorded history, there’s never been a worse time to catch a cold, as Covid-19 devastates populations and economies. Efforts to arrest the outbreak are hamstrung by the absence of definitive diagnostic tools as clinical symptoms like high fever, aches, and dry cough could also indicate other illnesses.

Pandemics usually occur every 20-30 years, the time it takes for a flu strain to change its genetic makeup so dramatically that people -- with little immunity built up from earlier bouts of flu -- would be most vulnerable. After the 1968 Hong Kong flu epidemic and the H5N1 ‘bird flu’ in 1997, the last major outbreak was the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) -- whose causative germ shares more than 80% of its genome with Covid-19 -- in 2003.

So Covid-19 ties in with this strange timeline. That scientists managed to shut out the coronaviruses behind Sars and the 2012 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers) gives hope, although Covid-19 is much more infectious than either.

So, could this lethal microbe be a bioweapon? Some contend it is an experimental germ that accidently escaped from a Chinese lab. The Chinese, in any case, owe a big apology to the world for having kept a dark secret like Covid-19 for too long, making it too late for other nations to batten down their hatches. Others argue it is the handiwork of the world’s most powerful military, which used the planet’s most populated country as proving grounds for a new bioweapon.

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Military experts, however, dismiss these concerns as conspiracy theories or propaganda in the absence of incontrovertible evidence. But one thing is certain: this is a grim reminder of the threat of weaponised pathogens and the pressing need to revise the 1975 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).

BWC was written to outlaw biological weapons and prohibited the production or stockpiling of biological agents that have ‘no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes’. Ironically, militaries do not consider lab-created pandemic pathogens as good bioweapons, as their high transmissibility would also cripple the attackers.

BWC has failed the world on two counts. One is the absence of a monitoring mechanism and its dependence on signatory states having their own legal biosecurity safeguards. Voluntary adherence never works for international agreements, and BWC is no exception.

BWC’s other omission is its silence on regulating academic research on <lethal> bio-agents. The line dividing academic research (aimed at public health) and the development of bioweapons is thin. And even if most of such research is not aimed at building offensive bioweapons, it still leaves the field open for germ warfare science to develop dual use capabilities.

Many believe the odds of lab-created pathogens being accidentally released — triggering a pandemic — are actually higher than that of a natural pandemic. The double jeopardy here is that researchers who produce potentially pandemic pathogens seldom give the bioweaponry risk of their work top priority, and BWC cannot monitor the dual-use nature of such data to assess their public health benefits.

No wonder countries like the US, China and Russia have exploited this loophole to run their bioweapons programmes, often in the guise of civilian biotech research. There have been at least 15 reported instances in the last 40 years when germ warfare was actually used, and ten accidental releases of pathogens from biosafety level four (BSL)4 labs — the highest level of biosecurity controls — in the last 30 years.

In that sense, Covid 19 is the canary in the coal mine, warning humanity against trying to harness the destructive power of pathogens whose lethal nature is simply the consequence of their evolution. It is only when we mess with their natural design to fashion weapons that horrors visit the world.

Having let the germ war genie out of the bottle, none of the big powers can now disown responsibility. The least they can do is sit together and revise BWC, or write a new disarmament treaty with a global mechanism for verifying and ensuring strict compliance, including sanctions against violators.

Exemplifying the current chaos, the US Justice Department, last month, acknowledged Covid-19’s potential for being weaponised and warned of action against anyone attempting it. There is even a private $20 trillion lawsuit in the US against China for allegedly releasing Covid-19 as part of a bioweapons project. Undoubtedly, a strong BWC is the need of the hour.

With a BWC review scheduled for next year, India has excellent credentials for steering the discussions on framing a new convention. Having never pursued an active bioweapons programme, India’s biodefence effort, which began in the early-1970s, is transparent and supported by its remarkable biotech infrastructure.

The time has come for a new world order that eschews bioweapons, where countries develop protective equipment, vaccines and pharmaceuticals — all within the legal landscape of a robust global treaty that effectively addresses biosecurity concerns.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author's own.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)
(Catch all the Business News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on The Economic Times.)

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