It is the deliberate and intentional ill intended release of biological agents such as viruses, bacteria, toxins, or other harmful agents to cause illness or death among humans, food crops, and livestock to terrorize the civilian population.
They are very harmful because they can be accordingly altered, tailored, or mutated. They generally consist of two parts – a weaponized agent and a delivery mechanism.
A small quantity is enough to bring about a disastrous effect and also any disease-causing organism (such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, prions or rickettsia) or toxin (poisons derived from animals, plants or microorganisms, or similar substances produced synthetically) can be used in biological weapons.
It covers a quite broad spectrum of concerns, from catastrophic terrorism with mass casualties, to microevents using low technology but producing civil unrest, disruption, disease, disabilities and death.
The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of several world powers in the event of use of biological weapons against them by rogue states and terrorist groups.
Q. What are the types of Bioterrorism Agents?
The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention grades the biological agents and diseases that have the potential to be used as weapons into three categories based on the ability and extent of damage . These are:
Category A agents are those with highest priority, and these are disease agents that pose a risk to national security because they can be transmitted from person to person and/or result in high mortality, and/or have high potential to cause social disruption. These are anthrax, botulism (via botulinum toxin, which is not passable from person to person), plague, smallpox, tularemia, and a collection of viruses that cause hemorrhagic fevers, such as Ebola, Marburg, Lassa, and Machupo. These disease agents exist in nature (with the exception of smallpox, which has been eradicated in the wild), but they could be manipulated to make them more dangerous.
Category B agents are moderately easy to disseminate and result in low mortality. These include brucellosis, glanders, Q fever, ricin toxin, typhus fever, and other agents.
Category C agents include emerging disease agents that could be engineered for mass dissemination in the future, such as Nipah virus.
Q. What are some of the deadliest biological weapons that have been used till date?
Anthrax which is caused by bacteria named Bacillus Anthracis. It is one of the deadliest agents to be used as a biological weapon. It has been used with food, water, spray, powders. It is completely tasteless and odourless.
2. Botulinum Toxin
BT is caused by naturally found bacteria named Clostridium Botulinum. It can be used by contaminating food and water. It was known to be used by Japan on Prisoners of War (POW) during the occupation of Manchuria.
3. Francisella Tularensis
This was used as a biological weapon against the Nazi Army of Germany by the Soviet Union Army in the Battle of Stalingrad of World War II.
Iraq had produced and deployed different weapons armed with Aflatoxin. It was noted by the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) in 1995. However, it was destroyed during the Gulf War.
Q. What are the dangers of Bioterrorism?
Biological agents are attractive tools of terrorism as they are relatively easy and inexpensive to obtain. In contrast of accessing functional chemical, radiological or nuclear materials, biological materials are produced easily.
The international terrorist attacks are changing over the past years towards the use of more deadly weapons for massive civil disruption. Some group of terrorists now show interest in using chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) materials in order to cause mass casualties
The virus can be easily disseminated.
It can cause widespread fear and panic beyond the actual physical damage it can cause.
The risk of massive destruction of life is too high.
They can be used in very minute quantities but the effects are life-risking.
Their presence can’t be detected faster as they take time to develop and cause widespread and disastrous spread.
Q. What are the targets of Bioterrorism?
Bioterrorism have devastating effect on the environment.
Potential targets for bioweapons are water supplies and water distribution systems as it is the critical need of every ecosystem health and also to the smooth functioning of a commercial and economy sector of our industrialized society.
Agriculture is another perfect target for bioterrorism which uses highly contagious, virulent and resistant agents that result in economic hardship on countries.
In addition, animals, plants and birds could also be targeted for biological threat generation.
According to World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), 80% of pathogens used for biowarfare are of animal origin and 60% of human pathogens are zoonotic. Furthermore, there are many animal foreign agents (foot and mouth disease virus, Bacillus anthracis and African swine fever virus) that are readily available in the nature and also from commercial sources, which require little effort in handling and dispersing these pathogens.
Q. What are the challenges from Non-State Actor?
There is wide consensus that the use of biological weapons by nonstate actors remains a hard reality.
Non-state actors have not hesitated to employ weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) when they were able to access such weapons and criminal elements are more than willing to assist terror organizations in attaining materials. For instance , the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has used chemical weapons multiple times from available Syrian stockpiles or manufactured their own crude versions on the battlefields of Syria. Several criminals in Moldova were arrested when they attempted to sell radioactive material to what they thought was a terrorist group.
Bioterrorism and India
Some cases in the past of bioweapons in India are as :
The Scrub typhus outbreak in Assam and West Bengal of India during the Indo-Pakistan war in 1965.
The outbreaks of pneumonic plague in Surat (Gujarat) and Bubonic plague in Beed (Gujarat) in 1994 resulted in mass casualties and increased attention to defense and intelligence outfits of India.
In 2018, Nipah Virus outbreak in Kerala has the physical attributes to serve as a potential agent of bioterrorism.
Further, India also appears ill-equipped to face the threat of bioterrorism, as was evident from the H1N1 epidemic, which claimed over 2,300 lives in past years.
Q. What are some of steps taken by government in this regard?
To keep India ready to counter a bioterrorism attack, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has proposed a model instrument where participation of both government and private sectors is a sine qua non to defeat any such attack.
In India, several nodal ministries have been earmarked for dealing with epidemics caused by bioterrorism. National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) is a specialised force constituted under MHA to deal with chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) attacks. It consists of 12 battalions, three each from the BSF and CRPF and two each from CISF, ITBP and SSB.
Defense Research and Development Establishment (DRDE) is the India’s primary biodefense laboratory of the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO). It is mainly involved in the development of defense against malicious biological, chemical as well as toxicological materials.
India signed the BTWC with some reservations on January 15, 1973 and ratified the treaty a year and a half later on July 15, 1974. It was one of the few countries to have expressed its reservations, which included:
The government of India would like to reiterate in particular its understanding that the objective of the Convention is to eliminate biological and toxin weapons, thereby excluding completely the possibility of their use.
The exemption in regard to biological agents or toxins, which would be permitted for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes would not, in any way, create a loophole in regard to the production or retention of biological and t oxin weapons.
Any assistance which might be furnished under the terms of the Convention would be of medical or humanitarian nature and in conformity with the Charter of the United Nations.
The ‘Special Chemicals, Organisms, Materials, Equipment, and Technologies’ (SCOMET) guidelines of India provide stringent export product control list that include goods, technologies and services related to dual- use items.
India has also revised ‘International Health Regulations’ (IHR) that came into force in June 2007 which account for rapid detection and countermeasures of health emergencies.
Q. What are the Global efforts?
Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention 1972.
The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) is a legally binding treaty that outlaws biological arms.
After being discussed and negotiated in the United Nations' disarmament forum starting in 1969, the BWC opened for signature on April 10, 1972, and entered into force on March 26, 1975 . As of 2019, 109 countries have signed the treaty and 183 nations are party to this treaty. Tanzania was the most recent country to become a party to the treaty.
BWC was the 1st multilateral disarmament treaty to ban the production of Biological Weapons.
The Biological Weapons Convention prohibits :
The development, stockpiling, acquisition, retention, and production of:
Biological agents and toxins of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes;
Weapons, equipment, and delivery vehicles designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict.
The transfer of or assistance with acquiring the agents, toxins, weapons, equipment, and delivery vehicles described above.
The convention further requires states-parties to destroy or divert to peaceful purposes the "agents, toxins, weapons, equipment, and means of delivery" described above within nine months of the convention's entry into force. The BWC does not ban the use of biological and toxin weapons but reaffirms the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which prohibits such use. It also does not ban biodefense programs.
So far, eight review conferences of BWC have been held. The eighth Review Conference was held in 2016 in Geneva. It was a disappointing conference as any meaningful outcome could not be achieved out of it .
The next review conference i.e. Ninth review conference will be held in Geneva in 2021.