Africa: Coronavirus - a Flashback to Biological Warfare of a Bygone Era

10 February 2020

Colombo, Sri Lanka — In the wake of the latest coronavirus outbreak, movie buffs are drawing an eerie parallel with the film Contagion, a 2011 thriller based on a lethal airborne virus called Nipah and how the world's medical community battled to find a cure for the pandemic.

The movie, which is much in demand on streaming sites, attributes the origin of the virus to a bat.

Another movie that comes to mind is "Cassandra Crossing". This 1976 thriller casts Richard Harris and Sophia Loren in the lead roles. The story begins with an abortive attempt by three terrorists to bomb the US mission at a global health organisation in Geneva. In violation of international conventions, the US has developed viruses and stored them in containers in the mission.

Security officers kill a terrorist and wound another. One escapes but not before he knocks over a container and is splashed with its harmful content. He stows away in a train taking nearly a thousand passengers to different European capitals.

The American military officer in charge of the secret biological weapon programme knows the customized virus is virulent, airborne and contagion. There is no cure. He rebuffs advice that the train is stopped, the terrorist arrested and quarantined.

He fears that most of the passengers have, by now, been affected by the virus. He insists that the train be rerouted to a disused railway line that goes to a former Nazi concentration camp in Poland so that the passengers could be quarantined there.

But the train has to cross the dangerously unsound Cassandra Bridge. It is a deliberate attempt to prevent a pandemic by killing all the passengers, regardless of whether they are affected or not.

As the coronavirus continues to spread, China would not take such inhuman measures and eliminate the entire population in the city of Wuhan, though it is accused of taking horrific measures to eradicate what it sees as a social virus in its Xinjiang province where millions of Uighur Muslims are alleged to have been kept under social quarantine until they disown their religious and cultural identities which the Chinese authorities see as symptoms of major social epidemic that poses an existential threat to China.

The movie "Cassandra Crossing" is fiction, but, in reality, countries do develop biological weapons -germs, viruses and fungi targeting humans, livestock and crops.

This is not to imply that the latest coronavirus outbreak is a biological weapon test going wrong at a Wuhan laboratory -- or an enemy nation has released a deadly virus in a highly populated Chinese town with the aim of sabotaging China's global ambitions.

But the truth is biological warfare - or germ warfare -- has been part of war for millennia.

History records that as far back as 400 B.C. armies had poisoned enemy wells and used poisoned arrows. History also records that in the 18th century America, the British colonialists gave small pox infected blankets to Native Americans with the intention of killing them in an epidemic.

Then, during World War I, Germany developed anthrax, glanders, cholera and a wheat fungus and allegedly spread plague in St. Petersburg in Russia.

After the end of World War I, nations agreed on the Geneva Protocol to curtail biological weapons. Yet, during World War II, Germany, Japan, Britain and the US disregarded the protocol and developed plague, syphilis and paralysis-causing botulinum toxin.

It took 22 years after the end of World War II for the so-called civilised world to acknowledge the evil of biological weapons that fall into the category of weapons of mass destruction, along with chemical weapons and nuclear weapons.

Some 179 states have ratified the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, the first multilateral disarmament treaty banning an entire category of weapons. It requires the parties to give an undertaking that they will "never in any circumstances develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire or retain" biological weapons.

But the convention allows nations to conduct 'defensive' research so that they will be prepared to face or survive an attack or a virus outbreak. In other words, they are allowed to make a virus to kill a virus.

Laboratories in Australia, Hong Kong and Europe say they have cultured the coronavirus -- 2019-nCoV in a race to develop a medicine as the death toll from the outbreak reached over 800 in China alone, as of February 9, while the number of cases stood at more than 28,000 in China -- mainly in the Hubei Province -- and nearly 200 elsewhere.

However, it is believed that some countries also develop offensive biological weapons and chemical weapons. There is little distinction between the chemical and biological weapons from a definitional aspect.

For instance, Agent Orange the United States used during the Vietnam War may be a chemical weapon, but the harm it caused was no different from that of a biological weapon. Similarly, the use of depleted uranium by the US in Iraq also falls into the grey area between chemical and biological warfare.

During the Bosnian war, the Serbs used shells containing the Cold War-era nerve agent benzilate in the bombing of Srebrenica, and in the ongoing Syrian conflict, the government forces are accused of using similar weapons.

The US is not the only big power which stands accused of using banned weapons. Take Russia. Despite its accession to the 1972 BWC and the 1993 Chemical Weapon Convention, it drew worldwide condemnation for the killing of a dissident Russian spy in 2006, by using a highly radioactive polonium-210 poison and a similar attack in 2018 on another dissident spy and his daughter.

The possibility of terrorists using portable biological weapons topped the international agenda after more than a dozen people were killed in the Sarin nerve gas attack carried out by the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo in three Tokyo subway stations in 1995.

Adding to the concerns is the anthrax scare that hit the US days after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. Letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to media offices and politicians.

Five people died and 17 were infected in the bioterrorism attack that continued for weeks. Suspicion fell on two bioweapon experts. One was cleared; the other committed suicide before he was formally charged.

All this indicates the ineffectiveness of the BWC, a gentlemen's agreement which largely requires the parties to submit only annual reports of compliance. The convention lacks a formal investigation mechanism to deal with violations.

And what better time than now to reinforce the convention when the world is gripped by the coronavirus threat?

* Ameen Izzadeen is Editor International and Deputy Editor, Sri Lanka Sunday Times

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