By Lt Gen. P. C. Katoch
COVID-19 has stormed the world with fatalities in thousands and over 100,000 infected in 124 countries. Dr. Francis Boyle, who drafted the Biological Weapons Act, says COVID-19 is an offensive Biological Warfare (BW) Weapon that WHO knows about. Bio-war is part of China’s ‘Unrestricted Warfare’. China signed UN’s Biological Warfare (BW) Convention but its BW programme is believed to be advanced; chemical and biological agents with multiple delivery systems – artillery rockets, aerial bombs, sprayers and Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs). In recent times, Chinese nationals have been involved in stealing viruses from abroad.
Some attribute COVID-19 to weird birds-animals-insects in squalor-ridden Chinese markets for human consumption. China accuses US military of bringing the virus to China – then shouldn’t Chinese intelligence shut shop? But if US actually did so, 49 of 50 United States‘ provinces are already infected. Obviously controlling viruses once launched is extremely difficult. But this may be different for bacteria. For example, Anthrax can be easily controlled and is cheap to produce. Also, bacteria can be modified using microbial methods to be effective only in the target’s environmental range – similar to chemical weapons. India maybe in for more casualties with positive COVID-19 patients shunning/escaping quarantine, travelling by air/train and using public places.
Bio-warfare, which overlaps chemical-warfare, isn’t new. Arrows dipped in poison, manure, decomposed bodies, find mention in ancient times. Plague-infected bodies thrown in wells infected drinking water. During World War I, Germans developed anthrax, glanders, cholera, wheat fungus for bio-war; plague was spread in St. Petersburg (Russia), mules infected with glanders in Mesopotamia and horses of French Cavalry. Unit 731 of Imperial Japanese Army conducted experiments on prisoners to produce bio-weapons, and used BW weapons in China. The United States, the United Kingdom and other countries too began their BW programmes before World War II.
Britain weaponised plague, brucellosis, tularemia, equine encephalomyelitis and vaccinia viruses, before the programme was shut in 1956. US Army‘s BW laboratories weaponised anthrax, tularemia, brucellosis and other agents. Russia too would have done similarly. Germany’s Chlorine Gas and America’s Agent Orange (used in Vietnam) are well known. Which countries besides China continue to develop such weapons cannot be established especially since research is dual use. Bioterrorism or for that matter Chemical-Biological-Radiological-Nuclear (CBRN) terrorism is a live threat.
Developing BW weapons is akin to producing vaccines, foods, sprays, beverages, antibiotics. Terrorists can comfortably escape after deploying them since the organisms have gestation period of few days. This makes the job of intelligence agencies extremely difficult considering 95 per cent recorded accidents releasing viruses were by employees due to low security. One terrorist with basic knowledge can cause horrendous casualties. But while BW agent can be produced cheaply, its weaponisation, storage and delivery to the target poses significant problems.
In March 1995, Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo cult released Sarin Gas on several lines of Tokyo Metro, killing 13, severely injuring 50 and causing temporary loss of vision to some 1,000. The cult actually had two remote controlled helicopters, which fortunately crashed during experimental flying. They had even smuggled in a Russian Mi-8 helicopter part by part. Had they used aerial spraying, they had enough Sarin to kill 1,000,000 people. In 2002, CIA discovered al Qaeda was experimenting with crude poisons and planning Ricin and Cyanide attacks through cadres infiltrated in Turkey, Italy, Spain, France and other countries.
Biological warfare has variants. Entomological warfare is one type that may employ insects in a direct attack or as vectors to deliver biological agents like plague. This involves infecting insects with a pathogen and dispersing the insects over the target area. Persons and animals get infected when bitten by these insects. Another type of Entomological Warfare agent is insects that may not be infected with any pathogen but instead represents a threat to agriculture. In early 1960’s China introduced an African strain of locust to destroy crops in Ladakh.
As another variant of bio-warfare, synthetic biology may witness states/terrorists designing new types of BW agent enabling weaponisation, rendering vaccines ineffective, enhancing virulence of a pathogen or render a non-pathogen virulent, with terrorists holding the targets to ransom with the antidote – as depicted in Hollywood-Bollywood movies. Yet, bio-security concerns in synthetic biology remain focused only on the role of DNA synthesis and the risk of producing genetic material of lethal viruses like the Spanish Flu of 1918 (that reportedly killed one-two crore Indians) and polio.
When the Obama Administration was considering striking Syria, Russia’s FSB released e-mails of ‘Britain Defence’, a private mercenary force, disclosing that the Obama regime had approved a “false flag” attack in Syria using chemical weapons; a deal proposed by Qatar and approved by Washington to deliver a chemical weapon to Homs (Syria) similar to a Soviet-origin g-shell from Libya similar to those held by Assad forces. The text included deploying Ukrainian personnel that spoke Russian and making a video record. Sarin gas has been used during the Iran-Iraq war and repeatedly on hapless Syrian public with opposing forces accusing each other.
Discussions about nuclear terrorism conclude terrorists using radiological (dirty) bombs. Terrorists haven’t acquired nuke-grad fissile material but their nuclear ambitions remain. Recall Osama bin Laden termed acquisition of nuclear weapons/WMDs a “religious duty”. The US has expressed fears of Pakistani nukes falling in terrorist hands. Yasin Bhatkal, Indian Mujahideen founder, disclosed in 2014 that his group had sought nuclear device from Pakistan. ISIS–Al Qaeda have been trying to procure fissile material. North Caucasus terrorists, wanting Islamic Caliphate of Russia, tried seizing a nuclear armed submarine, have been reconnoitering nuclear storage facilities and have repeatedly threatened to sabotage nuclear facilities. These remain world-wide threats including cyber-attacking nuclear facilities.
‘Lone Wolf’ studies assess millions can be killed by an individual using chemical/biological/radiological device. For example, 100 kg of Anthrax can cause 1 million to 3 million deaths — equivalent effect of one megaton nuclear bomb. Radioactive agents paired with conventional explosives become a radiological weapon. Theft of a truck full of Cobalt-69 in Mexico (2013) and a Uranium mine recovered in India’s northeast (2014) indicate dangers of CBRN terrorism. Drones with InfraRed cameras could deliver chemical/radioactive payloads. Facial recognition is being uploaded in drones. Threats are more with state-sponsored terrorism. During the 1999 Kargil conflict, Pakistani RPG-7 detachments were equipped with gas masks and two of our casualties showed signs of chemical attack.
After the Bhopal gas tragedy (1984) and radiation accident at Mayapuri, Delhi (2010), National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) laid down guidelines to handle such incidents: imparting training and education; evolving policies and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs); holding adequate equipment and medicines, and hospital preparedness. The Director General Armed Forces Medical Services (DGAFMS) moved to equip: seven hospitals for nuclear/radiological patients; 25 hospitals to treat biological cases, and; 85 hospitals to treat chemical attack cases. Personnel are also being trained in CBRN Schools. The Defence Research and Development Organisation has evolved SOPs to counter CBRN threats and developed equipment/systems for threat detection, monitoring, plus individual and collective protection equipment. DRDE, Gwalior is also running training programmes. NDMA has 12 National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) battalions to handle natural and CBRN contingencies, each providing 18 self-contained specialist searches and rescue teams of 45 personnel each.
But our existing national response capacity may not be enough to handle consequences of CBRN dispersal leading to massive damage. Our response to COVID-19 indicates facilities in civil hospitals and quarantine arrangements in civil are found wanting. We must also introspect whether we have adequate equipment, detectors (standoff and mobile), wide area reconnaissance, modular hardened shelters, clothing, ambulances and capability to handle magnitude of CBRN threats. Civil hospital emergency departments are generally not prepared in an organised manner to treat victims of chemical or biological terrorism.
The counter-CBRN strategy generally recommends denying the enemy use of the weapon, counterforce strike at enemy CBRN centre(s), and intercepting the threats. This has many loopholes besides being relevant to enemy state, not terrorists. An effective monitoring mechanism is a must, counterforce needs political will and intercepting the weapon may still disperse the contents. The intelligence agencies and policy makers have a massive task in monitoring, assessing the mode, place and time of likely attack, and respond in real time; all of which may be possible only partially.
The Bhopal gas tragedy exposed 500,000 to the gas, over 20,000 have since died and some 12,000 continue to suffer. There is a saying that WW I was chemical, WW II nuclear and WW III may be biological. We need to be prepared for CBRN attacks not in metros alone but pan-India. This requires a comprehensive strategy regularly updated, planning and coordinated preparedness of response organisations, educating masses, coordinating medical care, making area/zonal incorporating all elements, and finally refined ratified through rehearsals and mock drills.
Finally, responding to COVID-19, where is the private sector and the corporate, who secure massive loans from banks to get rich? Has any big corporate come forward to pitch in? Has any private airline volunteered to fly Indians from abroad? Has any private hospital chain deputed doctors? Have they opened any quarantine centres? On the contrary, many corporates are not even willing to let people work from home, let alone disinfect their areas. The Delhi government had to direct establishments and outlets to keep mundane things like sanitizers at their entry. This is a terrible shame. The government needs to assign responsibilities of private sector and the corporate in coping with COVID-19 and future CBRN attacks.
(The author is an Indian Army veteran)