Discomfiting turn

The blame game being played out between the US and China regarding the COVID-19 pandemic has brought forth the issue of biowarfare, writes Ashok B Sharma

The present spread of the novel Coronavirus across the globe has infected thousands and sent many of them to death. The figures of dead and infected are on the rise every day. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has termed the disaster as a "pandemic". The virus has spread to about 196 countries and territories in six continents. The news of lockdown is coming from countries across the globe every day. The lockdown is causing huge loss to the world economy. The alarming situation calls for hard thinking. Was the outbreak intentional or spontaneous?

In late December last year, the outbreak occurred in the Wuhan province in central China. This led to over thousands of people dying. The Chinese government has reported death figures of over 3,000 and has claimed to stop its spread after three months. In Italy, the number of deaths is over 7,000. In Spain, it is over 4,000. The US, which is struggling to deal with about 68,581 cases of infection and about 1000 dead, has accused China of intentionally exporting the "Chinese virus" to the world. China has tried to defend itself and has accused that the US Army "brought the epidemic to Wuhan" and demanded "an explanation". Trading of charges may continue but of no avail until the fact comes to light.

The debate assumed momentum over the news of warning sounded by Chinese doctor Li Wenliang about the large scale outbreak. Dr Li Wenliang, who died on February 7, was threatened with arrest. The police, however, later revoked its admonishment and tendered a "solemn apology" to his family, according to the reports of China News Service on March 17.

Also, 38 years ago, an American novelist Dean Koontz, in the book The Eye of Darkness mentioned Wuhan-400 virus as a bio-weapon developed at RDNA labs outside Wuhan city. It was the four-hundredth viable strain of man-made microorganism developed at the research centre. The virus cannot survive outside the living human body for longer than a minute. In a corpse, the virus perishes when the temperature falls below 86 degree Fahrenheit. A novel is, however fiction but it looks prophetic in the current situation. Similarly, a 2011 movie depicts a pandemic that has similarities to recent events, according to several news reports.

Meanwhile, China has reported the death of a person from Yunnan province by an attack of the Hantavirus while on his way back to Shandong Province for work on a chartered bus. Hantavirus is not a new disease. It originates from rodents and has a mortality rate of 50 per cent.

An American lawyer, Larry Klayman and his advocacy group Freedom Watch and a Texas company Buzz Photos have filed a lawsuit in a US district court in Northern District in Texas against the Chinese government, the Chinese Army and Major General Chen Wei, Wuhan Institute of Virology and its director, Shi Zhergli claiming damages of $20 trillion. The petitioners have accused China of aiding and abetting death, provision of material support to terrorists, conspiracy to cause injury and death of US citizens, negligence, wrongful death, and assault and battery. They also alleged that the virus was released by Wuhan Institute of Virology and was "designed" by China to kill a large mass of the population. They claimed China suppressed the fact and tried to silence the whistleblowers.

No medicine or vaccine has been developed so far for the cure of the infection caused by this novel virus. There is no perfect toolkit to detect the novel Coronavirus otherwise termed as COVID-19. China has claimed that it has developed a suitable vaccine which is under clinical trials.

Whatever may come from the trading of charges between the US and China, the fact remains that viruses, bacteria and fungi can be genetically engineered and multiplied in labs to be used as weapons of bioterrorism. Genetic engineering makes them more potent. Poisonous chemicals and gases can be used in such a dangerous form of warfare even there are several global treaties to prevent their misuse. History stands as a testimony to such misuses in the past.

The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has categorised several bio-weapons, rating them as per their potential threat. In Category A are anthrax bacteria, dengue, ebola, smallpox and Tularemia viruses. In Category B are chikungunya, influenza and Zika viruses. Category C includes emerging pathogens and pathogens that are made more pathogenic by genetic engineering, including Hantavirus, Nipah virus, tick-borne encephalitis and haemorrhagic fever viruses, yellow fever virus and multidrug-resistant bacteria.

Some scientists say that most dangerous bio-weapon can be Marburg virus which can be easily isolated and be used in biological warfare. Next is the Hantavirus from Bunyaviridae family of viruses which has a mortality rate of 50 per cent. Anthrax disease-causing bacteria, Bacillus anthracis, found naturally in the soil, causes serious infectious disease. Anthrax bacteria was used as a deadly bio-weapon in World War-I.

Smallpox virus was used as a biological weapon during the French and Native American War (1754-67) by the commander of Fort Pitt. Soldiers distributed blankets that had been used by smallpox patients with the intent of initiating an outbreak among Native Americans. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) is caused by an animal virus and its outbreak among humans occurred in Guangdong province in China in 2002 and the virus can be used as a potential bio-weapon.

Yersinia pestis, a causative agent for plague, can be used in an aerosol attack. The bacteria, Vibrio cholera has been investigated in past as a biological weapon. A few antibiotics are active against the bacteria Francisella tularensis (that causes tularemia) but strains resistant to these antibiotics can be used as weapons of biological warfare.

Bird flu viruses, H5N1 and H7N9, transmitted from poultry to humans in the past. Though antiviral drugs like Oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and Zanamivir (Relenza) are a cure for the H5N1 strain, there is no vaccine to protect against H7N9 type of avian flu. The current strain of H1N1 originated in pigs and then was transmitted to birds and humans. H1N1 also causes Swine flu.

Reston virus is known to cause Ebola, Ebola spread is believed to involve direct contact with an infected wild animal or fruit bats, monkey species, chimpanzees, gorillas, baboons and duikers. Any eatables that are touched or partially eaten by these animals or birds should be avoided. Nipah virus is also transmitted through fruit bats which in turn infects pigs, dogs and horses. Escherichia coli, a bacteria caused by eating contaminated food can also be used as a weapon of bioterror.

There have been innumerable outbreaks of such contagions in the past. The world, therefore, has vast stockpiles of these viruses, bacteria and fungi which can be genetically modified and multiplied in labs to be used as potential weapons of bio-warfare.

Views expressed are strictly personal

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