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AN ASSESSMENT OF CHINA’S BIOLOGICAL WARFARE CAPABILITIES AND NEED FOR GLOBAL APPROACH TO BIO-SECURITY

Brig Vivek Verma   Writes :CIA report on “The Darker Bioweapons Futures” talked about the diverse and elusive threat spectrum created due to rapid biotechnology development. It warned about the diversity of new biological agents creating broad range of attack scenarios, and that it would be virtually impossible to anticipate and defend against them

Brig Vivek Verma   Writes :

This paper is being published in two parts, Part -I dealt with China’s capabilities, while Part – II will deal with the Global approach for security

PART – II

NEED FOR GLOBAL APPROACH TO BIOSECURITY

 

COVID-19 and The Debate on BioSecurity

 

In the three months since the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) official declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic, the world has lost more 224,000 lives and almost 195 million their livelihood. According to UNCTAD almost US$ 2.5 trillion will be required to bring stability to the embattled world facing health and economic distress. The 2003 CIA report on “The Darker Bioweapons Futures” talked about the diverse and elusive threat spectrum created due to rapid biotechnology development. It warned about the diversity of new biological agents creating broad range of attack scenarios, and that it would be virtually impossible to anticipate and defend against them. Also that “there could be a considerable lag time in developing effective biodefense measures”.[1] According to Global Trends 2025, “If a pandemic disease emerges by 2025, internal and cross-border tension and conflict will become more likely as nations struggle—with degraded capabilities—to control the movement of populations seeking to avoid infection or maintain access to resources.”[2] Despite warnings and the global community being aware of the threats, it  has done precious little to contain the threat of pandemic and the world can now ill afford another. It is important to look at the world mechanism and what has been done so far in preventing the proliferation of the bio-weapons.

Biological Weapons Convention (BWC)

 

BWC came into existence in 1975 with 109 signatory states amongst the then 183 state parties. The treaty built on the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, signed at Geneva on 17 June 1925. It merely prohibits the production, stockpiling, and transfer of biological agents for warfare purposes. However, according to Article X (2) of the BWC, it allows the conduct of research for peaceful purposes and permits the international exchange of bacteriological (biological) agents and toxins and equipment. While the Convention calls “for prohibition and elimination of all types of weapons of mass destruction…. through effective measures….. and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control,” however, it lacks in verification procedures. This choice stands in contrast to the American approach toward the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the International Atomic Energy Agency, both of which have robust verification mechanisms.

BWC Contributions – Lip Service to Bio-Security

The first review conference was held in 1980 and since then every five years the review conference are held to examine, discuss and negotiate issues of relevance to strengthen BWC. More than four decades have passed since adoption of BWC, but it has not been able to provide direction on bio-security and surveillance mechanism as part of global effort. The issue was raised in 1991 during 3rd BWC and in the  5th BWC, held in 2001, a plan to establish a monitoring body was also presented but was scuttled by the US. Since then the BWC conventions have only reiterated and highlighted action plans to be undertaken at the national level and urging cooperation amongst the nations to mitigate the problem arising out of new development in gene-editing and bio-informatics. The Russian allegation of BSL-3 laboratory in Georgia producing pathogen almost sabotaged the 2018 meeting of BWC.[3]  In the absence of a monitoring mechanism the issue of bio-security and surveillance has remained on paper. The rapid advances in biosciences and biotechnology poses a serious challenge to the BWC. The Table below lists the various BWC outcomes and proposal.[4] [5]

Table: Outcomes and Proposals of BWC Reviews

BWC Review Outcomes and Proposals
1st BWC 1980 ·         Voluntary declarations on efforts to destroy or divert BW items to peaceful purposes.·         National legislation enacted to support the Convention.

·         Cooperation under Article X was expanded to include issues that could contribute to the development of peaceful programmes.

2nd BWC 1986 ·         Accusation by the US and Soviet on use of offensive biological weapon programme.·         Agreement on exchange of information on research centres / laboratories working on high risk biological materials, and abnormal outbreaks of infectious diseases.

·         Implementation of cooperation under Article X was left ambiguous.

3rd BWC 1991 ·         Declaration of vaccine production facilities.·         Establishment of an expert group on verification (VEREX) to examine potential violations of BWC from a scientific and technical standpoint.
Special BWC Conference 1994 VEREX identified 21 potential measures for on-site and off-site measures and ranged from monitoring publications and legislation to inspections of facilities. But failed to work out a legally-binding verification mechanism.
4th BWC 1996 Proposal made by Iran to amend the BWC to include the “use” of biological weapons in the Article I prohibitions was not adopted on premise that it will open BWC for further amendment.
5th BWC 2001 The Adhoc Group under Hungarian Ambassador Tibor Toth recommendations of establishment of a monitoring body like Organization for the Prohibition of Biological Weapons (OPBW), mandatory declarations of all relevant facilities including those in the area of biodefense and random inspections following allegations of noncompliance were not accepted by the US. No significant progress.
6th BWC 2006 Adopted programme to address the issues related to national implementation, regional cooperation, biosafety and biosecurity, oversight and awareness-raising.
7th BWC 2011 No concrete outcome except for identification of issues to be analysed:  technologies for sequencing, synthesizing and analyzing DNA; bioinformatics and computational tools; advances in technologies for surveillance, detection, diagnosis and mitigation of infectious diseases and develop advances in the understanding of pathogenicity, virulence, toxicology, immunology and related issues.
8th BWC 2016 No concrete outcome. Biosecurity and surveillance given a cursory look and left for nations to device their plan while urging member states to cooperate.

Bio-Security

Biosecurity involves the prevention and control of major emerging infectious diseases, and epidemics among animals and plants. According to Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), biosecurity policies are not given enough financial priority by the countries and international institutions to address global health security and to counter the risks associated with weapons of mass destruction. It seems the world is paying price for the negligence in implementing the bio-security and bio-surveillance when it comes to the spread of COVID-19 contagion.

Need for Global Bio-security Approach

The outcomes at the BWC has left the states party to the treaty with no strong assurance in the absence of intrusive inspection, monitoring and reporting system. The compliance with the Biological weapons programmes can be easily concealed inside a perfectly legal vaccine-production facility or pharmaceutical plant. This lack of a verification procedure has led some critics of the BWC to argue that the best deterrent to being attacked with biological weapons is not a treaty at all but rather the recognized ability to retaliate in equal or greater measure. The role of security council becomes crucial and investigation under Article VI should be taken suo moto once a pandemic has been declared. In the case of COVID-19 world is still debating the correct exchange of data from China to WHO so that the necessary prevention can be found for the pandemic.

The Government of India supported the signing the BWC on the condition that “the exemption in regard to biological agents or toxins, which would be permitted for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes would not, in any way, create a loophole in regard to the production or retention of biological and toxin weapons.”[6] During the 6th BWC review conference Indian head of mission had drawn the attention of world community on how the advances in biotechnology, genetic engineering and life sciences, their dual-use nature and easier access to them have increased the danger of proliferation and hostile use. The current pandemic has put the lives and livelihood of millions of people at risk and warrants an investigation in accordance with the Article VI(2) of the BWC which states, “each State Party to this Convention undertakes to co-operate in carrying out any investigation which the Security Council may initiate”.

Unfortunately, the major problem the global community faces is lack of national and international database to monitor and track commitments to improve biosafety and biosecurity-related assistance. Biotechnology and communications sectors are two areas that are likely to outpace regulations and increase the likelihood of health and economic surprise. A gene editing process like CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat) may lead to development of microbes that mimics the transmissibility and lethality of smallpox with technology ordered online at a throw away price with larger global ramifications. The dual-use nature of production chains and the genomics development aided by artificial intelligence (AI), super-computers and civil-military fusion makes matters worse. The countries engaged in undertaking development at niche end of bio-technology may be looking for wealth generation using the health emergency as an alibi. However, technology, even for peaceful purpose poses, a grave amount of risk to the humanity, if not monitored.

In October 2019, China started drafting a biosecurity law for inclusion in the country’s overall national security system[7], a point which was reiterated by Xi Jinping when he called for strengthening the system and capacity building of epidemic prevention and control and scientific research on public health. He emphasized concentrating nationwide resources to double down on key and core technology research and urged breakthroughs in developing high-end medical equipment to accelerate fixing the country’s “weak link” in this sector.[8] For Xi and PLA this is an idea of strengthening the defence in depth and creating a non-nuclear deterrent. The alleged use of biological warfare for national security, by countries like China, amongst others, puts humanity at risk.

Conclusion

The pandemic, unleashed by COVID-19, has shown that these microorganisms do not respect borders and ethnicity. It is, therefore, important to regulate the research areas in bio-technology if the nations world dreams to make the world a safe place for future generations. The next Biological Weapons Convention Review Conference meet in 2021 must concretise the issues surrounding bio-security and bio-surveillance. It must also provide a framework for national approach towards bio-security so that cumulative national efforts could be linked to the international database under the verification body. Global threats to humanity demand a strong global bio-security measures and mechanism so that world is not thrown in a disarray again.

 

End Notes

[1] US Central Intelligence Agency. (2003, November 03). The Darker Bioweapons Future . Retrieved from https://fas.org/irp/cia/product/bw1103.pdf.

[2] US National Information Council. (November 2008). Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World. Washington DC: US Government Printing Office.

[3] Klotz, L. C. (2019, November 15). The Biological Weapons Convention protocol should be revisited. Retrieved from Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: https://thebulletin.org/2019/11/the-biological-weapons-convention-protocol-should-be-revisited/.

[4] United Nations, Geneva. (n.d.). The Biological Weapons Convention. Retrieved May 01, 2020, from https://www.unog.ch/80256EE600585943/(httpPages)/04FBBDD6315AC720C1257180004B1B2F?OpenDocument.

[5] Rissanen, J. (2003, March 01). The Biological Weapons Convention. Retrieved from Nuclear Threat Initiative: https://www.nti.org/analysis/articles/biological-weapons-convention/.

[6] United Nations Office for Disarmamemt Affairs. (1973, January 15). India: Signature of Biological Weapons Convention. Retrieved from http://disarmament.un.org/treaties/a/bwc/india/sig/london.

[7] Shusi, He. 2020. COVID-19 control vital to national security. 16 April. Accessed April 27, 2020. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202004/16/WS5e97d22da3105d50a3d16abf.html.

[8] Xinhua. 2020. Xi stresses COVID-19 scientific research during Beijing inspection. 03 March. Accessed April 27, 2020. http://english.www.gov.cn/news/topnews/202003/03/content_WS5e5dd349c6d0c201c2cbd6d9.html.

 

Brig Vivek Verma is a Senior Research Scholar with the USI of India

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the USI of India.

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