In the strategic planning for various forms of weapons and warfare an important place may be assigned to those weapons or agents  and forms of  warfare which can inflict very heavy damage on the perceived enemy  in such a way that the identity of the attacker  may be completely hidden or else at least is not revealed clearly. It is in this context that biological warfare and its potential weapons continue to get attention , particularly at the level of strategic planning of the bigger powers of the world.

Biological weapons are those biological toxins or infectious agents such as bacteria, virus, insect and fungi which are used, with the intent of killing or inflicting other damage on human beings, animals and plants, as a hostile act or an act of war. These are banned in most of the countries by international agreements but it is a matter of continuing concern that research relating to biological warfare has continued.

A partial explanation for this is that  research work relating to protection from these weapons is allowed. In the guise of such research or in other ways, research and development  work on biological weapons continues in some countries; most certainly in militarily the three most powerful countries namely the USA, Russia and China, and most probably in some other countries as well. Therefore possibility of actual use and accidental release remains.

Here it may be useful to make a clear distinction between five aspects– intentional biological warfare, sabotage, dangerous experimentation, accidents and routine research. These five aspects should not be confused with each other.

There are hardly any examples yet of actual biological warfare ( while certainly there are several example of actual chemical warfare). However there are allegations of biological weapons being used as sabotage, for example against Cuba. Who was responsible for this? Who can say, as it is so difficult to trace the culprit, although everyone knew where the finger of suspicion was pointed with good reason.

The third category of involvement is that of dangerous experimentation which of course has to remain well disguised. The country concerned may like to conduct at least some of these experiments in other countries. One obvious reason for this is to avoid creating hazards in own country. This has to be seen in the context of the fact that these experiments can easily spill out of control and the damage done may well be irreversible. Despite such high risks dangerous experiments may still be conducted.. Any country which is serious about developing bio-warfare potential may feel the need or ambition to try out these weapons in field conditions.

Thirdly there is the issue of accidents ie unintended damage from the highly dangerous material that is being handled. The possibilities of accidental release of very dangerous biological materials from labs and in the course of transport from one lab or unit to another is actually much higher than commonly realized.

In the last category is the routine research being conducted, some of which is in defense labs but  some is also in civilian labs with various degrees of links to defense labs. In this context the category of research rather oddly called ‘gain of function’ research and research relating to novel potential pandemic pathogens is obviously very important and also very controversial. This relates to genetic or other altering of viruses in such ways that their potential capacity to infect and to cause more harm to human beings can be enhanced. Many people may be surprised to know that such research is routinely conducted in many labs in several countries, particularly the bigger powers, under the stated reason that this wll help in predicting and finding treatments or preventions for future pandemics. This reasoning has been strongly disputed by several senior scientists, but millions of dollars continue to be regularly available for such research and its biological warfare implications are obvious too.

Biological weapons are capable of causing millions of deaths. Hence biological weapons continue to be included in the category of weapons of mass destruction or WMDs.

A very serious risk which should be discussed more seriously is the possibility of  terrorists gaining access to some forms of biological weapon agents, perhaps some crude forms but nevertheless dangerous. As biological weapons are relatively  easier and cheaper to make and use compared to nuclear weapons, there is higher risk of these being used by non-state actors or terrorists to cause very large-scale destruction.

Another  very sinister and scary reason why such weapons may be preferred in certain war situations is that these can kill a lot of people without harming the infra-structure ( buildings, roads, airports etc.) at all.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “ The insidious effects of many chemical and biological warfare agents make them suited to sabotage, for not only do they cause widespread damage, but their delayed effects may also enable the saboteur to escape detection.”

There are several other reasons why these weapons may be increasingly favored by nations as well as well as non-state combatants. US expert Kathleen C. Bailey has summed up the reasons, “ Tremendous technology advances such as genetic engineering and development of stabilizers have made these weapons relatively easy to manufacture and deliver effectively. Because these weapons are inexpensive and comparatively easy to produce, an increasing number of nations may pursue them.”

A special aspect of these weapons is that these can easily cause loss which is much higher than what was  intended , to the extent that even the attacking nation may be seriously affected by the risk. As Bailey adds, “ a bacteria or virus used as a weapon  could spread well beyond its intended victims, causing an epidemic worldwide. The pathogen could mutate, becoming even more deadly and resistant to treatment or prevention.”

Genetic engineering has been used increasingly to spread GM or genetically modified crops by very powerful multinational companies. This by itself has involved very serious risks and hazards, as pointed out by several senior scientists, but in addition a less-discussed but very important aspect is that in the process bio-weapon technology and capability are also pushed ahead in the garb of civilian research. Eminent scientists from several countries grouped together as the Independent Science Panel have stated, “ By far the most insidious dangers of genetic engineering are inherent to the process itself, which greatly enhances the scope and probability of horizontal gene transfer and recombination, the main route to creating viruses and bacteria that cause disease epidemics…Newer techniques, such as DNA shuffling, are allowing geneticists to create in a matter of minutes in the laboratory millions of recombinant viruses that have never existed in billions of years of evolution. Disease causing viruses and bacteria and their genetic material are the predominant materials and tools for genetic engineering , as much as for the intentional creation of bio-weapons.”

Due to such close linkages of certain types of civilian research with bio-weapons research it is not surprising that several civilian research projects have drawn criticism for their biological warfare implications. This has been well-dicumented even at the official level in the context of India.

Several such projects were indicted in the 167th Report (1975) of the Public Accounts Committee of the Indian Parliament titled Foreign Participation or Collaboration in Research Projects in India and in its follow-up report in 1976. This report indicted several projects but came down more heavily on the genetic control of mosquitoes unit (GCMU) project. So it is a matter of grave concern that projects using similar technology of genetically modified mosquitoes are still being promoted in India by multinational companies in India and other developing countries. Earlier projects by the US army to test specially bred mosquitoes as bio-weapon agents had become very controversial in the USA.

In addition these two reports mentioned several other projects in which prestigious institutions in India had received foreign funds and collaboration for projects which had clear biological warfare implications and were best avoided.

These reports also mentioned several precautions and safeguards for avoiding such risky projects in future. However some time later another project on bonded labor which involved sending abroad a lot of blood samples and their analysis abroad became controversial in this context. It was in the context of these and some other projects that the specific susceptibilities of some ethnicities were probably being researched in a hidden way.,

The Week magazine published two cover stories ( October 9 1994 and July 23 1995 ) alleging that the outbreak of pneumonic plague in Surat was caused by bio-warfare experiments conducted by the USA. The PTI reported around the same time, “ there is increasing suspicion among scientists that the strain of Yersinia pestis, which caused the outbreak , was genetically engineered. Basis for this suspicion is a test report from the US Centre for Disease Control at Fort Collins in Colorado that the Surat strain is unique and not related to any known strain of the plague bacillus.”

Cuba  protested several times against the alleged use against it of bio-weapons against it,, resulting in outbreak of diseases and crop loss.

It is clear that intentional use of bio-weapons, experiments related to this and accidents relating to bio-weapon production and research remain a real possibility which can prove extremely costly for all forms of life on our planet. Hence efforts to check any such possibility should receive urgent attention and remedial actions should be taken at the international level and also at the level of those countries which have been more involved in such research, development and experimentation..

Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author, is Convener of Save the Earth Now Campaign and its SED Demand. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Protecting Earth for Children and Man Over Machine ( Gandhian ideas for our times).


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