By Saachi Sachdev
In 2001, a bioterrorist attack took place through the US postal system. Letters containing powered Bacillus anthracis spores were intentionally distributed to civilians, killing 5 out of the infected 22, by the rare but serious disease Anthrax (Centers for Disease and Control, 2019). Bacteria, viruses and fungi, whilst seeming to be the simplest microorganisms due to their single-celled nature, have the potential to be genetically engineered into biological weapons. Their altered structures can wipe out populations in a matter of days, through the transmission of the pathogen from person to person. Whilst conventional weapons are perceived as a significant and daunting threat to the majority of the general public, and nuclear weapons even more so, biological weapons are severely underestimated in their power to cause death and war.
The 2001 attack killed people by delivering the agent directly to the victims. The Bacillus anthracis bacterium is the most common biological agent; its spores are found in the natural environment and also have the capability to be grown in laboratories. When released, the bacterium disperses quietly into the environment, and its small biological form means it can be added to food and water, with no difference in taste or smell (Centers for Disease and Control, 2019). On the other hand, biological agents can also cause destruction by spreading organically through a population. In 1763, the British Army purposefully spread smallpox through colonies of Native Americans by providing blankets from smallpox hospitals as gifts to the communities (Tim Newman, 2018).
The ease of deployment of biological agents has garnered great interest; it is highly efficient, with some agents like botulinum toxin having the ability to kill millions with one drop. The lack of manufacturing expense allows it greater availability to any country with a reasonably strong medical infrastructure. Understandably, many countries would be reluctant to weaponize biological agents due to their unpredictability. Once released, there is the threat of infecting your own country or troops, as the agent is live, active and controlled only by transmission patterns (Crystal Ayres & Natalie Regoli, 2015). To research and manufacture the biological agents, a laboratory with Biosafety Level 3 or 4 would be required, and not all countries would meet these requirements.
This year’s biggest biological threat was SARS-CoV-2. The devastating pandemic is caused by a spherical virus, with antigens that bind to receptors of the ACE2 cells in humans, affecting the lungs and airways (National Institutes of Health, 2020). Comments made by President Trump of the USA first sparked what is commonly referred to as the coronavirus ‘conspiracy’ theory; that the virus was a Chinese-engineered biological weapon, created in the Wuhan Institute of Virology (BBC News, 2020). Data pulled from every infected country in the world shows the dramatic exponential growth of COVID-19 cases once the virus is present in the country. In the UK, infected cases were doubling every 3-4 days, and deaths were doubling every 2-3 days. This shows that, regardless of whether the virus was man made or not, the exponential growth of cases and deaths clearly show the destruction that can be caused by a single pathogen (Robert Cuffe & Christine Jeavans, 2020). This has since caused concern around the global vulnerability to attack from such biological agents; with global travel now a common practice, transmission has wider reaching effects and so grows the need for defensive structures against those that may exploit this.
Right now, the mass production and use of biological weapons is illegal. After World War 1, the Biological Weapons Convention outlawed the development, stockpiling and transfer of biological weapons, further reinforcing the ban in 1972 ( International Committee of the Red Cross, 2013). This, however, does not mean the world is safe from biological warfare. Chemical weapons are also banned through the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Geneva Protocol, and yet, reports of chemical warfare continue from many countries, including Syria, North Korea, and Russia. Over the course of the Syrian Civil War, more than 300 chemical attacks took place, killing many hundreds of thousands (Claire Lombardo, 2019). In North Korea, the half-brother of president Kim Jong-un was killed by the nerve agent VX (Alex Therrien & Philippa Roxby, 2018). The Salisbury attack involved the assassination of a former Russian agent and his daughter with a Novichok nerve agent (Gordon Correa, 2020).
Clearly, legal barriers to biological weapons are ill-effective in protecting global populations. The need for strong surveillance and defence against those that may make use of biological weapons has been highlighted through the disastrous outcomes of the coronavirus pandemic. Whilst each nation begins to implement structures to defend itself, there is also a humanitarian responsibility of world leaders to protect vulnerable populations outside their political jurisdiction.
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