Time To Increase Awareness Of Biological Arms

Biotechnology is now being increasingly studied for industrial use around the world.

STRATEGIC EYEA column on current affairs – relating to global issues

Today, There Is Proliferation Of Knowledge About Biotechnology & Equipment Around The World

By Nivedita Das Kundu@

The Meeting of States Parties (MSP) to the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC/BTWC) was held in Geneva during first week of December 2019.

The 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) serve as the norms against the use of biological weapons. Since the BWC entered into force in 1975, advances in biotechnology for use in the pharmaceutical, medical and agricultural industries have led to the rapid corresponding proliferation of knowledge and equipment across the globe.

Biological Weapons (BW) have been used as weapons of mass destruction. Various types of bacteria, pathogens, viruses etc are deliberately used to cause harm to humans, animals and plants.

It is widely acknowledged that these weapons not only pose a serious indirect threat to the state but also a big concern directly to the individual well-being and security that cannot be ignored and must be taken care of.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, accompanied by Prince Edward Island Premier Wade MacLauchlan, left, visits the biotechnology company BioVectra Inc. in Charlottetown. File picture: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

With growing interest in using biotechnology for industrial uses such as bio-fabrication, bio-electronics, bio-sensors and even digital organisms and environmental remediation, the biotechnology industry undoubtedly continues to grow.

This growth implies that more nations and individuals will have access to dual-use of biotechnology that could be used for industrial purposes, economic development, curing disease or alternatively can be misused for malicious purposes.

In June 2018, German police arrested a Tunisian man in Cologne for trying to build a biological weapon using the deadly toxin, ricin. In October 2018, reports published that US agricultural program funded by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) was working on bioweapons project. At the same time, Russia also claimed that the US had tested biological weapons in Georgia killing over 70 people.

Published news information highlighted that few suspected packages were sent to selected targets in the United States during October 2018; these packages in addition to being mail bombs also carried a white powder reinterpreting concerns of the anthrax attacks of 2001, which led to the death of 5 people.

Though China learned about the bio crisis through the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus in 2003, nonetheless, concerns exist about the reporting and transparency by China regarding African Swine flu.

Even today, therapeutics including vaccine development continues to be elusive for many emerging diseases. For example, the therapeutic for Ebola, ZMapp, that is, the monoclonal antibody combination treatment used in the West African outbreak is still continuing to undergo testing. Despite calls for more rapid development, therapeutics still take over a decade to gain full licensure. Meanwhile, unproductive discussions about how and under what conditions to share biological defense capabilities globally as part of the BWC continue with little progress.

The MSP takes place every year on BWC/BTWC in Geneva and it remains as an important forums for dialogue and ensures that the threat of a bioweapons has been recognised by countries.

However, improved access to scientific knowledge, easier control over biological material and reduced cost of creating designer pathogens could entice state and non-state actors to experiment with biological weapons.

There have been attempts to explore and create technologies that could be weaponized by both state and non-state actors. However, global preparedness and response capabilities have been inadequate to address the range of biological threats that the world is facing today.

@Nivedita Das Kundu, Ph.D, is a subject expert and works on Weapons of Mass Destruction issues and concerns.