China And The Coronavirus: Why The World Needs An Effective Bioweapons Disarmament Regime

China And The Coronavirus: Why The World Needs An Effective Bioweapons Disarmament Regime

by Satish Viswanathan - Monday, May 17, 2021 05:05 PM IST
China And The Coronavirus: Why The World Needs An Effective Bioweapons Disarmament RegimeCoronavirus and China. 
  • This pandemic, whose origins continue to be shrouded in mystery, has shown us that biology can be a highly potent weapon in the wrong hands.

When the Covid-19 pandemic erupted in December 2019, Chinese authorities authoritatively stated that Wuhan’s Huanan seafood market was the source of the coronavirus (SARS-COV-2).

The WHO also backed the theory that zoonotic transmission occurred at the Wuhan wet market. For more than a year, the WHO firmly stuck to its stand that the virus originated in wildlife and vehemently dismissed any theory that suggested that the virus might have been artificially engineered.

In February 2021, a WHO team visited Wuhan to determine the emergence of the virus and the entire visit was tightly monitored by Chinese authorities. Dominic Dwyer, a key member of the WHO team stated that “the market in Wuhan, in the end, was more of an amplifying event rather than necessarily a true ground zero”.

This effectively buried the natural emergence theory postulated by China and the WHO.

Since then, the claim that the coronavirus might have been engineered in a lab has continued to gain credence. This has also been echoed by a number of experts who believe that the virus might have been accidentally released from a lab.

An exhaustive article by science journalist Nicholas Wade presents a compelling case for the “lab engineered virus” theory. It is speculated that the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a possible source of the virus, had in the past collaborated with the Chinese Army on a massive project to investigate animal viruses.

This raises the very real possibility that the coronavirus might have been one of the byproducts of a state-sponsored bio-weapons programme. The origins of the coronavirus will continue to be hotly debated. It would be instructive to examine if existing multilateral institutional mechanisms are sufficiently capable of dealing with a sovereign state that is developing and deploying bio-weapons.

A history of biological warfare

The first recorded instance of use of biological weapons on the war field dates back to 14th century BC. The Empire of Hattusa is said to have used diseased rams to infect invading armies with Tularemia, a highly infectious bacterial disease.

In 4th century BC, Scythian archers were known to dip their arrows in a mixture of decomposing cadavers and blood. This is documented in Herodotus’ seminal work, The Histories. The Roman emperor Barbarossa dumped human bodies in wells during his conquest of Italy in the 12th century.

The colonial era is replete with examples of biology being used to wipe out adversaries. The most notorious of those being the distribution of small pox infected blankets to Native American tribes by British colonists.

The end of the 19th century marked a turning point in biological warfare. Groundbreaking advances in microbiology enabled the large scale production and dispersal of deadly pathogens.

The Imperial State of Germany ran a clandestine biological weapons programme during World War 1. One of the main projects of this programme was developing the means to infect the enemy by injecting animal feed with anthrax-causing bacteria.

This is the first documented attempt at developing a biological weapon of mass destruction in the modern era. The emerging threat posed by bio-weapons influenced the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which prohibited the usage of both chemical and biological weapons.

But, the protocol placed no restrictions on the research or development of biological weapons and was technically a “no-first-use” agreement only.

During the Second World War, Germany, United Kingdom, U.S.A and Japan had operational bio-warfare programmes. But only Japan used bio- weapons offensively during the war, when it dropped bombs filled with plague infested fleas on the Chinese province of Zhejiang.

Post the Second World War, both the United States and the Soviet Union accelerated their bio-weapons programmes. Aerosol delivery systems that could disseminate viral and bacterial pathogens were developed. However in 1969, the United States unilaterally terminated its biological weapons programme.

This was accompanied by discussions on the United Nations’ disarmament forum to ban bio-weapons and supplement the Geneva Protocol. Three years of extended discussions resulted in the Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention (BWC), a legally binding treaty that outlaws biological arms.

In 1972, this treaty was signed by more than 100 countries.

Is the BWC effective?

Entering into force in 1975, the BWC prohibits the development, production, acquisition, transfer, stockpiling and use of biological and toxin weapons. It was the first multilateral treaty banning an entire category of weapons of mass destruction. The Convention currently has 183 State parties and four signatory States. It is a short treaty consisting of 15 articles.

Articles IV-VII form the crux of the compliance monitoring mechanisms that the Convention sought to put in place.

  • Article IV places an obligation on State parties to take national measures to ensure the implementation of the treaty.

  • Article V obliging State parties to extend cooperation

  • Article VI providing every party with the right to approach the UN Security Council if it finds any other party breaching the BWC.

  • Article VII obliging assistance to any State party adversely impacted by a violation of the BWC.

It is quite evident that the BWC places the onus of compliance on State parties. The absence of a formal verification protocol and an administering body meant that the Convention is highly ineffective in ensuring compliance when compared to the nuclear and chemical weapons disarmament regimes.

The lack of teeth would soon come to the fore in the following decades. The Convention could not prevent the Soviet Union from covertly operating its offensive bio-weapons programme between 1975 and 1991. The rest of the world learnt of its existence only after Russian President Boris Yeltsin made an admission in 1991.

The 1979 Sverdlovsk anthrax outbreak, which killed more than 100 people, was attributed to an accidental leak from a Soviet military research facility that specialised in biowarfare.

A series of revelations post the Gulf War also uncovered the true capabilities of Iraq’s bio-weapons programme and a sizeable stockpile of Bacillus anthracis (anthrax causing bacteria) and Botulinum toxin (a neurotoxin that causes botulism).

Cut to the present day and humankind finds itself combating a raging pandemic which most likely originated in a state-funded Chinese lab that was also a part of a military led bio-weapons programme.

Article VI of the BWC provides every party ”the right to request the United Nations Security Council to investigate alleged breaches of the BWC, and undertaking to cooperate in carrying out any investigation initiated by the Security Council”.

Ironically, the country currently accused of breaching the Convention is a veto wielding member of the Security Council. The probability of China not vetoing any proposal to investigate the alleged breach at the Wuhan Institute of Virology is zero.

The need for a Verification protocol

Over the years, a number of confidence-building measures (CBMs) have been adopted by State parties to strengthen the Convention. These include voluntary exchange of information about the following.

  • Outbreaks of infectious diseases

  • Biological defence research

  • Vaccine production facilities

  • National legislation

The participation of State parties in these CBMs is quite low. Moreover, there is no institutional body that can verify the voluntarily submitted information. Given the dual-use nature of materials and technical expertise needed for a bio-weapons programme, proper verification will be impossible without a formal set up in place.

In 1994, an ad-hoc group of BWC State parties was created to formulate a legally binding verification protocol. A draft protocol was submitted in 2001 and it used the verification set up adopted by the Chemical Weapons Convention as a template. Some of the notable proposals are listed below.

  1. It recommended setting up the Organisation for the Prohibition of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons (OPBW) to oversee the implementation of the Convention.

  2. The OPBW would conduct routine, non-accusatory inspections at declared facilities.

  3. The OPBW could conduct short notice investigations at any facility within the territory of a State party if another party is concerned that the said facility maybe involved in activities in violation of the Convention.

  4. Field investigations to allow a State Party to request an investigation if it has concerns that biological weapons have been used against it.

  5. Provisions to protect products and processes impacting national security and commercial proprietary information.

The draft also proposed rotation-based membership on the Executive council of the OPBW, thereby providing representation to all State parties. Unfortunately, the Bush Administration rejected the draft protocol on grounds of national security.

Creation of a verification set up in the BWC remains a highly contentious issue. In 2019, India was part of a group of meeting experts that considered a number of approaches to strengthen the Convention. The expert group explicitly supported the creation of formal verification measures. No progress has been made since then.

There is support for ensuring the verifiability of the BWC. The threat of biological weapons proliferation and bioterrorism continues to exist. India, which has a stellar WMD nonproliferation record, should push for restarting negotiations based on the draft protocol prepared by the ad hoc group.

The devastation caused by SARS-COV-2 will force a number of State parties to rethink their previously stated opposition to verification measures in the BWC. The existing weaknesses in the Convention have been exploited by rogue states to clandestinely advance their bio-weapons programmes. There should be a concerted push for strengthening the bioweapons disarmament regime.

This pandemic, whose origins continue to be shrouded in mystery, has shown us that biology can be a highly potent weapon in the wrong hands. Biology might not offer us a second chance.

Satish Viswanathan tweets at @satishv1987.

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