Jumel Gabilan Estrañero/Ma. Kristina Decena Siuagan
Can something as transmissible and fatal as Sars-CoV-2, which causes the now dreaded COVID-19, be the next chemical and biological weapon?
As of now, no reports confirm this.
But the matter of fact is IT COULD BE.
Chemical and biological warfare defined
Chemical and biological warfare (CBW) is defined as the use of bacteria, viruses, toxins, poisons or chemicals to injure or kill large numbers of people. It is usually directed at a military force in an effort to cause mass casualties and death.
Historical background of chemical weapons/biological weapons
There are a handful of bio-chemical initiators in Asia alone. For instance, North Korea has the largest stockpile of chemical weapons in the region. It could deliver large quantities of blister, blood, and nerve agents by rocket, mortar, rocket launcher, and spray tank. Not to mention, even its ordinary citizens are well-trained in biological and chemical defense.
Meanwhile, China has a “mature” chemical and biological warfare capability per report of Global Proliferation. Given China’s advanced technical know-how, it was able to develop fatal ballistic missiles that it has been trying to operationalize in the West Philippines Sea. Consequently, transforming chemical agents in a wide variety of munitions, should have been foreseeable by now.
Similarly, Japan started in 1937 a biological warfare program in a laboratory complex code named “Unit 731”. Accordingly, an estimated number of 3,000 deaths resulted from such experimentation, annihilating Chinese and Manchurians in 1940s. There were reports that the Japanese program had stockpiled 400 kilograms of anthrax to be used in a specially designed fragmentation bombs.
Later, it was revealed that the Japanese’ subjects on research were numerous organisms and prisoners of war. Apparently, slightly less than 1,000 human autopsies were carried out in this laboratory, mostly on victims exposed to aerosolized anthrax.
In North America, the United States had its fair share of bio-chemical warfare-related activities. In 1967, the U.S. military loaded the S.S. Corporal Eric Gibson with nerve rockets containing VX and sarin at Col’s Neck Naval Pier in New Jersey. Eventually, its spillovers became hazardous after its sea dumping, making this one of the many incidents that were considered as “deadly legacies” of WWI, WWII, and Cold War.
From 15th to 17th century, smallpox was used as weapon in battles during the French and Indian War. As a consequence, Native Americans sustained epidemic casualties, which directly contributed to the loss of Fort Carillion to the English.
Also, in Europe, Germany had some of its horses and cattles inoculated with destructive and contagious bacterial disease, known as glanders, before shipping them to France.
Meanwhile, in 1972, the U.S., United Kingdom, and Soviet Union (currently known as Russia), alongside over 140 countries, signed the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction, also known as the Biological Weapons Convention. This treaty prohibits the stockpiling of biological agents for offensive military purposes, and also forbids research initiatives that develop their use.
However, despite this historic agreement among nations, biological warfare research continued to flourish in many countries hostile to the United States. In fact, there were several cases of suspected or actual case of biological weapons. The most notorious of these were the “yellow rain” incidents in Southeast Asia, the use of ricin as an assassination weapon in London in 1978, and the accidental release of anthrax spores at Sverdlock in 1979.
Sars-CoV-2 as a blueprint for unconventional yet lethal biological and chemical warfare
Sars-CoV-2 (formerly referred to as “novel corona virus”), the causative agent of the dreaded disease called “COVID-19”, has originated in Wuhan, China and is the newest strain of coronavirus that has infected thousands of people worldwide. This virus is transmitted primarily through saliva droplets and nasal discharges coming from an infected person or contaminated objects. However, medical experts recently have looked into aerosol transmission, from which a person may be infected through exposure to high concentration of the virus, particularly in enclosed areas.
At the time of writing, there were approximately 600,000 persons who had tested positive for COVID-19, and approx. 27,000 people had died. Interestingly though is the fact that not everyone inflicted with this disease dies. Some develop mild signs and symptoms while others have no symptoms at all (asymptomatic).
Deadlier yet silent and treacherous weapon
Undeniably, the Sars-CoV-2 virus has actually put several countries or states on acid test. The recent turn of events revealed the effected countries’ capability on preparedness, planning, detection and surveillance, emergency response, and communication systems, as well as the efficacy of their individual health care systems. Some had somehow managed to contain COVID-19 to a more manageable level, while others suffered a large blow owing to their lack of readiness in addressing emerging epidemic and life-threatening infectious diseases.
For instance, as of March 26, new figures reveal how coronavirus cases in the United States have the world’s biggest and fastest growing coronavirus outbreak; most from European travellers. In fact, this has overtaken Italy and are even worse than China ever reported.
This graph lay bares how US coronavirus cases have overtaken Italy and China
From the above mentioned, cases in America rose to more than 92,000; more than any other nation. Italy is second with 86,498 and China is third with 81,430.
We may then compare the case trajectories of the US, Italy, China and South Korea since each one reported 100 cases. South Korea’s cases doubled every week, and cases in both Italy and China doubled every three days.
On the other hand, in the U.S., cases have been increasing twofold every two days – the fastest in any nation. In fact, on March 26th, there were more than 16,000 new cases recorded in just one day. Practically speaking, New York City has become the new epicenter, with cases outstripping Wuhan – where the virus originated. On 27 March, the city recorded 519 deaths, up from 365 deaths on that same day.
Manifestly, the pandemic is becoming immensely catastrophic to the global economy. In the United States alone, the Labor Department reported that 3.3 million people applied for unemployment benefits, which is by far the highest number ever recorded. Job losses have swept across sectors – from food services, to retail, to transportation – as nearly half of the country has closed “non-essential” businesses.
Global, Regional, and National security from epidemic preparedness
With its current and rising rate of transmission, with concomitant increase in cases and mortalities all over the world, it is not unsurprising that the COVID-19-causing Sars-CoV-2 might be used as a pre-cursor of a pernicious yet deadlier weapon of mass destruction, which will definitely transform the landscape of regional and national security to a whole new level as well as global security order, in case power shift will give way to another superpower, but this is still far-fetched.
In the meantime on emerging political clash, rumors suggest that China has been “underreporting” the number of its COVID-19-related cases and deaths. Whether or not this is true, they are saying the whole new truth narrative to gain traction with states it can leverage from for diplomatic and economic intent.
On the other hand, the integrity and reputation of World Health Organization (WHO) is at stake due to alleged cover-ups of facts, inadequacy of reports, and biased leaning towards China without considering Taiwan’s effort in containing COVID-19. Pakistan and Africa have already blamed China for low quality supplies of N95s while Chinese medical doctors have already arrived in the Philippines.
The way forward
To further advance resolution, the G7, G20, EU, NATO, ASEAN, and other regional blocs have to widen their information and strategic operations towards robust risk assessment and logistics, in order for these international bodies/institutions to be able to carry out collaboration in their respective jurisdictions. That is for the mean time since history would always tell us that any global crisis also considers self-preservation strategy in the long run (i.e. maintaining financial stimulus and domestic amelioration for all social classes). Moreover, funds coming from the governments of the countries concerned, private donors, and other international organizations, may be used for risk assessment.
Also, experts from defense and health industries may be tapped to deal with the pandemic. Given the post-Cold War cuts in defense-related spending, we have to shift to emerging health security issues while maintaining security borders. The clean-up effort among nations could prove to be a lucrative avenue for companies looking for opportunities amidst high technological problems. For example, there really is a need to identify those sites which are most at risk, and constantly monitor them.
On governmental side, there has to be a strong pushback and concrete plans of economic stimulus to maintain direct payments to individuals, dissemination of subsidized loans, grants and tax breaks to small-medium enterprises (SMEs).
Certainly, the unintended yet massive impact of COVID-19 across various geographic areas and socio-political and economic sectors, makes the current spread of causative agent, Sars-CoV-2 virus, an irresistible framework for savage non-state actors to plot graver and more incalculable terrorism or destruction. Indeed, the awareness, education, and readiness of leaders and public health institutions towards this developing health and security threat, cannot be overemphasized.
The writers are defence and security analysts based in the Philippines. They have co-authored many books including the Handbook of Terrorism 2019 (Philippines). Their works have appeared in Eurasia Review, Global Security Review and Geopolitical Monitor.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.