The Debate | Security

Wuhan and the Need for Improved Global Biosecurity

While the Wuhan virus is a natural pathogen, its rapid spread ought to be a reminder of our vulnerability to bioweapons attacks as new technologies revolutionise access to deadly germs and toxins.

By Shambhavi Naik and Aditya Ramanathan for
Wuhan and the Need for Improved Global Biosecurity
Credit: CC0 image via Pixabay

The Wuhan coronavirus, or nCoV-2019, is likely to become a pandemic in the coming weeks, having already infected at least 17,000 and killed some 400. The World Health Organization has belatedly declared a public health emergency, while at least 45 million Chinese citizens remain under lockdown. Despite botching up the initial response in Wuhan, authorities in China have since been fast to share information on the outbreak and have even invited overseas experts for help. A draft sequence of the genome has also been published online and scientists from across the world have shared their analysis. Despite wild speculation about the origins of the Wuhan virus there’s absolutely no evidence it is anything other than a naturally mutated pathogen – indeed, it would make no sense for a state to produce a bioweapon that has both high communicability and low lethality.

However, future threats to global health will come not only from natural viruses like nCoV-2019, but also from man-made pathogens. Mechanisms that aid early detection and encourage transparency need to be institutionalised quickly as a combination of breakthrough technologies and human malice raise the threat from bioweapons. Major states like China and India are well positioned to champion this institutionalization given their high vulnerability to bioweapons attacks and their shared desire to shape global institutions.

The Return of Bioweapons

There’s enough evidence that some actors are prepared to use bioweapons. In October, Indonesia’s police made a dramatic discovery when they raided cells of the terrorist outfit Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD). Besides the usual stock of high-explosives meant to be strapped to suicide bombers, authorities also stumbled upon 310 grams of rosary pea seeds – the source of the deadly biotoxin Abrin. A police spokesperson pointed out that 0.7 micrograms of Abrin could kill a hundred people. Indeed, Abrin is more potent than ricin, another deadly biotoxin that was the weapon of choice for a pair of would-be terrorists planning a biological attack in Germany last year.

In both cases, the attackers were using biotoxins rather than infectious diseases, and in both cases, they were foiled by authorities. However, these are small consolations in the wider picture involving bioweapons. The game-changer is gene editing, as a 2016 U.S. intelligence threat assessment report concluded. Revolutionary gene editing tools such as the CRISPR-Cas-9 system have democratised the ability to manipulate basic building blocks of life, lowering the barriers for motivated groups intent on creating weaponizable biological agents.

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At present, stocks of the deadliest pathogens tend to be held relatively securely in labs. However, those pursuing bioweapons can now take relatively less dangerous and widely available pathogens and manipulate them. For example, a bioterrorist could conceivably take the measles virus and modify it to become resistant to current vaccinations. Furthermore, advances in synthetic biology provide new options for bioweapons development. For instance, in 2002, scientists claimed to have synthesized the polio virus in a lab.

How Bioweapons May be Used

Non-state actors have a history of using bioweapons. In 1984, followers of Baghwan Shree Rajneesh contaminated local salad bars in Oregon with Salmonella in an attempt to reduce voter turnout in a local election. Eventually, 751 people fell ill though no one died in what is still the largest biological weapons attack in the United States. Less than a decade later in 1993, the apocalyptic Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo mounted failed attacks using Anthrax and botulinum toxin. An authoritative study of the cult’s pursuit of biological and chemical weapons noted that determined groups can learn from such failures and eventually succeed. Indeed, it’s important for us to remember that biological attacks are attractive for apocalyptic terrorist groups not just because of their ability to cause mass casualties but also because disease carries with it connotations of divine retribution.

However, non-state actors are not the only potential users of biological weapons. New technologies and changing political contexts could make bioweapons attractive to state sponsored assassins. More recently, such killers for Russia and North Korea have allegedly used radioactive isotopes and nerve agents to take out inconvenient individuals. In the future, they may choose biotoxins, since these are deadly, but do not risk wider infection. There is even notorious historical precedence for such action: in 1978, Bulgaria’s secret service killed the dissident Georgi Markov in London with ricin.

A key perceived advantage of bioweapon attacks is that some of them may be difficult to distinguish from naturally occurring outbreaks. It does not take much to imagine factions in future civil wars taking advantage of this ambiguity – especially amid conditions in which both medical care and investigative abilities are scarce.

Fully functioning states might also take advantage of this ambiguity. For instance, they could covertly use unmanned vehicles to deliver pathogens that can disrupt the economic life of an adversary by either causing sickness among populations or by killing specific crops or livestock. Attacks like these may not kill anyone directly, but they could be difficult to distinguish from natural events and almost impossible to definitively attribute to a particular state.

The Way Ahead

The use of bioweapons has been outlawed for nearly a century. The 1925 Geneva Protocol banned their employment, while the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) banned their development, production, and stockpiling. These agreements arose not only from a revulsion against such weapons but also from a recognition that infections were too difficult to predict and control to be effective military tools. This did not stop at least one superpower, the Soviet Union, from continuing its own covert bioweapons programme over the next twenty years. The consequences were deadly: in 1979, a small leakage at a secret Anthrax-making facility killed 60 and sickened hundreds.

The BWC helped strengthen the norm against bioweapons but it was toothless even when it came into effect in the 1970s. Today it is dangerously inadequate. The BWC’s lack of a verification mechanism renders it useless against states secretly pursuing bioweapons. The convention is also presently struggling for funds to fulfil basic needs and has far too few resources at hand. For example, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) has about 500 employees while the BWC’s Implementation Support Unit has just three. More fundamentally, the convention was also born in a time before gene editing, unmanned vehicles, and mass-casualty terrorism and is therefore ill-equipped to deal with the perils that arise from them.

The BWC needs to be overhauled – and if that doesn’t work, we need a new treaty. Aspiring international rule-makers like India should take the lead in shaping a new legal and administrative regime for the problem of bioweapons. The BWC (or its successor) needs to be supported by a scientific board of doctors and scientists from member states as well as representatives from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Global Health Security Agenda. Besides investigating outbreaks, the board would study and classify emerging technologies to help governments regulate them better. The board would also identify vulnerable countries (for instance, developing nations are easier targets than developed ones with sophisticated public health systems). The treaty will need to have the resources to monitor disease outbreaks and classify them in an epidemiological database. This would help identify unusual diseases and establish a common minimum healthcare response program.

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Finally, the treaty must work with other international organisations like the WHO to deal with outbreaks, when they do happen. Coordinated global responses to such attacks would not only reduce the incentives for perpetrators, they would also help deal with natural outbreaks.

As populous countries with facing public health challenges, it’s in China and India’s interest to take on the bioweapons challenge.

Shambhavi Naik is a Research Fellow with The Takshashila Institution’s Technology and Policy program. She has a Ph.D in Cancer Biology from University of Leicester, UK.

Aditya Ramanathan is a policy analyst with The Takshashila Institution.