Early detection and a robust healthcare infrastructure are necessary preparation for biological warfare. And guess what — we need those anyway.
In the last month, many prominent public figures in USA received an unidentified white powder encased in suspected pipe bombs through mail, reviving memories of a similar scare from 2001. Back then, the white powder contained spores capable of causing anthrax in the recipients. Anthrax is on a list of naturally-occurring pathogens and toxins which have been weaponized for use in biological warfare. In a world filled with guns, missiles, tanks and nuclear weapons, how bad can a biological weapon attack be?
Japanese experiments with biological warfare during World War II are speculated to have killed more than 200,000 Chinese residents. Using simulations in 1970, the WHO estimated that given assumed conditions, the release of anthrax dried powder would expose 180,000 people in a city with a population of 1,000,000. It would lead to the deaths of 95,000 people and incapacitate another 30,000. To better visualize a planned biological attack, imagine if the recent outbreak of Nipah seen in Kerala was set upon a population dense area (think Mumbai or Bangalore) with questionable public hygiene. By the time the disease would have been diagnosed, the victims would have come in contact with many more people, setting off an exponential rise in the number of casualties before containment. Such a spread could cripple the functioning machinery of the city, including the healthcare response.
Indeed, the impact of biological weapons is so horrific that the USA closed down its own programme so as to not risk anyone else stealing and using the technology. Countries worldwide got together to sign the Biological Weapons Convention, a treaty that bans the creation, storage and use of biological weapons. The intentional use of biological weapons on a mass scale has not been known to occur since the Second World War. So why do we need to worry about them now?
Biological weapons are fairly easy to obtain and store. Unlike nuclear weapons, they are also easy to destroy and re-stock if necessary. The scientific expertise needed to deal with biological organisms is becoming commonplace as technological transfers for enabling research into possible diagnostic and medical tools has increased. Dual-use technologies such as gene editing are much needed to advance our expertise in biology and create ground-breaking solutions based on that knowledge. However, they can just as easily be warped into creating lethal biological weapons.
The possibility of such an attack has reared its ugly head because these technologies could potentially confer on biological weapons the two qualities they lacked – targeting and stability. Further, a biological attack may be difficult to distinguish from a natural outbreak, making it an ideal surreptitious tool for even state actors with targeted goals. A number of countries have had or currently have functional biological weapons programs. Non-state actors such as ISIS have also been reported to be experimenting their use for terrorist activities.
But would biological weapons be used to target India? India’s environment, population density and poor public hygiene standards make many areas in the country very vulnerable to the spread of a disease. In addition, malnutrition and poor access to primary healthcare amplify the effects of infections. The limited exposure and the rapid containment in the wake of the Nipah outbreak were a result of an atypical responsive healthcare system. They not only show the strength of an agile first-responder team, but also expose the fragility of the healthcare system elsewhere. Even in cities, poor infrastructure can restrict the movement of responders to effectively contain diseases. These conditions make India particularly susceptible and therefore a strategic target for biological weapons.
So how do we prepare for a biological weapon attack? DRDO has focused research on biodefense projects – in 2017, it exhibited MUNTRA, an indigenously developed unmanned tank with capabilities of detecting bioweapon risk. However, if this tank can access the narrow by-lanes of a poorly structured city in times of an emergency remains to be seen.
Like we saw with Nipah, the crux of biodefense has to center around early detection of an infectious disease. In this regard, the source of the disease – whether intentional or natural – is not relevant. India has to invest in technologies that expedite diagnosis of unidentified diseases and significantly improve their outreach through primary healthcare centers to be able to avert a pandemic situation. An integrated healthcare system with robust communication between hospitals, laboratories and government authorities is required to quickly respond to any suspected incidents.
Another important preparation is awareness among the public to report any suspect cases and understand the nature of any new disease incidence. Particularly in cases of infectious diseases, detailed information of whom the victim may have come in touch with is required to contain the disease. Public education about the veracity of this information and its underlying value is required to ensure that these measure can be effective.
In many ways we continue to look westward to determine our own outlook for biological threats. But the reality is that we are much more vulnerable to such attacks and very likely unprepared if they happen. In this case, the investment of resources not only has applications in defense but very positive outcomes in improving access to healthcare and overall standard of living for our citizens.