By Lakshmi Puri
Conflicting claims on whether the Novel Coronavirus is a natural mutation or is human engineered—and was accidentally released from the high-security Level 4 Wuhan Institute of Virology and the US investigation into it—have raised alarms on biosafety. The dangers of an accidental release or theft of biological disease agents from dispersed biodefence and research facilities—governmental, private, universities, and biotech, biochemical and virology centers—of countries with uneven control systems are real. Concerns about the expansion of high containment labs persist. Such facilities must be nationally and internationally monitored and classified according to the four established bio containment/biosafety levels (BSL). Regulatory frameworks and protocols, in case of accidents and theft, must be established and revisited, and increased international vigilance, information sharing, and cooperation must be ensured.
Some experts fear that bioterrorism is likely to get encouragement from the demonstration effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. Biosafety is key to prevent and counter bioterrorism, as is non-proliferation and export control on biological materials. Implementing the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1540—on general and complete disarmament measures to prevent terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, their means of delivery, and materials and technologies related to their manufacture—assumes urgent and new significance. The Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism championed by India, which seeks to criminalize all forms of terrorism and deny terrorists access to funds and arms, needs to be “biosecurity updated” and adopted at the earliest by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).
The pandemic has also made clear that any state which is sponsoring, condoning, or being negligent about bioterrorism must now think twice as it will lead to self-destruction. Any disease thus caused to other states could metastasize into regional or global pandemics. Hence, states must move fast to adopt and enforce effective laws and export control regulations for biological weapons, related materials, and their means of delivery. States must also implement their licensing provisions as provided by The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWTC) and the UNSC Resolution 1540. The Australia Group Multilateral Export Control Regime (MECR), of which India is a member, must strengthen its controls on biological agents. International vigilance and cooperation on the non-proliferation of bioagents, and the prevention and countering of bioterrorism, should be the new focus of security diplomacy and strategic partnerships, especially for India.
Biointelligence failure and remedy
Reports claim that the US Department of State issued a warning, in 2018, about the Wuhan Virology Institute’s work on the coronaviruses in bats, with its potential human transmission presenting the risk of a new pandemic. Whether it was an East Pakistan genocide-related Blood Telegram moment or not, well-resourced US and Western intelligence setups are introspecting on possible bio-intelligence failures before the start of the pandemic in China and possible missteps that led towards the novel coronavirus becoming a global pandemic. There is a need to fill this lacuna at national, regional, and international levels. We have learnt that medical intelligence, infectious diseases risk assessment, and pandemic prediction—within national boundaries and in foreign countries—must now be incorporated into national security assessment, including by India.
It must cover the totality of the intelligence cycle—direction, collection, analysis, and feedback—and support exchange and cooperation with strategic partner states. Timely, accurate, and strategic insights on current and emerging bio risks; integrated all-source intelligence; and access to the entirety of the intelligence community’s inputs—intercepted communications, satellite imagery, sensitive human intelligence, and covert sample collections—are indispensable. Close coordination with national public health systems and infectious disease control and biodefence facilities is required.
Biosurveillance and international institutions
Handwringing about being blindsided and misguided during and after the first stirrings of the pandemic in China has exposed the absence of international authoritative and independent early warning systems. It has also exposed the lack of multilateral and bilateral bio-surveillance mechanisms for ensuring accountability. The WHO’s frameworks and mechanisms must be empowered to surveil diseases and pandemics on an ongoing basis. It must be granted access to facilities in ground zero countries inured from geopolitical pressures. The WHO should be enabled to determine the origin and risks of a virus at the earliest possible stage of its development and outbreak.
No effective and credible international bio-surveillance mechanisms for early warning on potential bioweapons threats exist. The UNSC/UNGA authorized United Nations Secretary General’s (UNSG) Mechanism exists for investigation of biological weapons use. The 1975 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWTC), which is at the center of global efforts to ban biological agents and their means of delivery for hostile purposes and in armed conflict, lacks any credible bio-surveillance mechanism; and voluntary Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) are no substitute. India has rightly been advocating for the BWTC, the only non-discriminatory Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Convention, to be universalized, effectively implemented, and reinforced with a comprehensive and legally-binding protocol for a strong verification, compliance and bio surveillance mechanism, institutional home and operational capacity. All countries should aim for its early adoption using the 2021 Review Conference.
Meanwhile, member states must take urgent measures to comply with BWTC provisions, establish an all-inclusive regularly updated database on bio facilities for transparency and strengthened National Coordination Mechanism, and vow cooperation amongst them. International cooperation in vaccine and therapeutics development against bio-threats should be prioritized to assure health security for all. India would do well to also review its National Coordination Mechanisms with all institutions and agencies to ensure that they are well integrated.
The UNGA and UNSC—the two principal organs of the UN—signally failed to address these health and biosecurity emergencies. The UNSC responded to the COVID-19 crisis with a mere debate but no action. The UNGA and its First Committee should get active on the biosecurity legislative agenda. The UNSC should be enabled to direct immediate investigation into the genesis and scope of any health/biological emergency at its inception to prevent a global pandemic. Given its mass destructive impact, a Responsibility to Prevent and Protect from Pandemics (R2PP) doctrine should preclude subjecting such decisions to a veto.
The expansion of UNSC permanent membership to include high biosecurity stake and resource countries like India, Brazil, Japan, and Germany is urgent. They can help unlock the UNSC’s potential to be a driver of biosecurity/health security as part of its peace and security mandate. Equally, the mechanisms for health security and pandemics prevention and response-related cooperation; and the plans, frameworks, and protocols under the WHO auspices on the health security/biosecurity interface, need to be reviewed and strengthened for greater effectiveness. Greater not lesser engagement; and the influence and leadership of countries like India and the US and formations like the EU, G20, and BRICS in UN institutions is needed.
Biosecurity, health and economic security
Biological agents don’t distinguish between rich or poor countries, but poorer countries have less economic resilience while being forced to make cruel choices between economic and health security. The US and those European countries who rank higher in the Global Health Security Index were the worst affected due to delayed lockdown. Early preemptive measures by PM Modi helped prevent a major conflagration in India. The lesson is to make our economic systems pandemics and bio-attack “shock proof” by fundamentally changing the spatial matrix of the way we produce, supply, work, move, and live. We must re-engineer ourselves as an economy and society so that we provide every citizen basic economic and social security and the resilience to withstand bio-attacks in these “battlefields” too!
We must concurrently make our health systems pandemic and economic shock proof and ensure that they serve the normal healthcare needs of people uninterrupted. Our allocation on health as a percentage of GDP must go up substantially. As part of the economic and health security integration and overhaul, we must, as PM Modi stated, not only build up national self-reliance in medical and healthcare supply chains but also on an array of essential goods, services, and technologies. We must also build a robust export capacity in order to become a global health security provider. We could draw upon the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction of 2015-2030 to help bio-attack-related disaster preparedness for effective response and resilience, and embrace its concept to Build Back Better in recovery, rehabilitation, and reconstruction.
Lessons in global interdependence and cooperation
There is speculation about the true scale of China’s disease burden and fatalities, and its “iron curtain efficacy as against the ‘Democracy penalty’” of Western and Indian systems. President Xi called China’s COVID-19 effort a major strategic achievement with claims to have bent the curve of the pandemic and restarted economic and export engines. The international community expects full disclosure on lessons learnt and cooperation on therapeutics and vaccines development from ground zero countries like China. It is also in China’s own health and biosecurity interest to do so.
COVID-19 should prompt a realization even amongst the most powerful countries with ambitions of economic and military domination that in this age of unprecedented connectivity, any use of biological weapons would not only cause enormous self-harm to the originating country but would boomerang on it. It would not distinguish between friend or foe, victor or vanquished. It would spread rapidly and exponentially across the globe threatening our very civilization. It should be an experiential morality tale to inspire all countries to recommit to abjuring the use of disease as a weapon of war and a doctrine of universal bio-deterrence should truly come into play.
The COVID-19 Pandemic marks the beginning of a new geostrategic era where biosecurity and health security will take centre stage in national and international goal setting, policy and action. India has the choice to lead the way in becoming a health and biosecurity champion, model and provider; and to drive unprecedented and much needed cooperation amongst all countries of the world. COVID-19 and its Tofflerian Future Shock has taught us that while we, as sovereign nation states, may follow sui generis national strategies, we either inoculate ourselves against biothreats together or collectively succumb to its tyranny. We have no choice but to join forces to stop the Satan Bug in its track but also pre-empt its emergence in the first place.