Biological Warfare In The 21st Century

In the past few weeks, a coronavirus first reported in Wuhan, China has placed large swathes of Asia under quarantine. At the time of writing, the virus has killed at least 54 people and infected over 1,000. Little is known about the transmission and origins of the virus, but its long incubation period and initially mild symptoms have allowed it to spread to major centres ranging from San Francisco to Singapore.

On top of this, China’s mismanagement of the issue has sparked worldwide criticism. The lack of quarantine action and attempts to suppress journalism raises questions about the Chinese government’s motives. Many have pointed out that Wuhan has two laboratories linked to the government’s bio-warfare program. The Wuhan Institute of Virology is the only location in China that is capable of working with deadly viruses. Although it is unlikely that the coronavirus originated in this laboratory, these accusations elicit a conversation about the use of biological warfare in the 21st century.

Understanding the problem

Biological warfare is the use of biological toxins or infectious agents such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi with the intent to kill or incapacitate humans, animals or plants as an act of war. Throughout human history, this method has been used for hundreds of years. In the 1300s, Mongols catapulted the bodies of plague victims over city walls during sieges. During the 1700s, North American colonizers gifted smallpox-infected blankets to the Native American population. In the American Civil War, Confederate soldiers sold clothing infected with yellow fever to Union troops.

However, this issue is not just relegated to the distant past. During World War II, the Japanese Imperial Army developed biological weapons as a means to attack the Chinese civilian population. As many as 600 prisoners were killed per year during experimentation, with tens of thousands more decimated after weapons were deployed. The volatility of biological warfare in conjunction with the immense pain and suffering it causes should be enough to convince law makers to discontinue its research. Many diseases used in biological weapons kill their victims painfully and excruciatingly slowly.

Health and safety concerns

For example, smallpox causes nausea and vomiting for 2-4 days before causing lesions inside the mouth and throat area by the 12th day. Within the next 48 hours, spots begin appearing on the forehead and rapidly spread across the whole body. From there, the pox develops into a rash that hemorrhages and kill over 30% of sufferers, while any remaining patients live with scars for the rest of their lives. A death this slow and painful is objectively inhumane and as such it is immoral to inflict this onto anyone, whether soldier or civilian.

This is where another issue arises. Viruses are incredibly volatile. Within laboratories, researchers wear several layers of safety equipment and  extensive disinfection processes for entry and exit. How do we control the spread of viruses once released? Diseases neither recognize borders nor discriminate between soldiers or civilians; they are impossible to control, yet capable of wiping out the entire human race. Logistically, they are impossible to use offensively without sabotaging one’s own population.

This is highly likely during even the testing phase of biological warfare as viruses often escape laboratories, making it easy for governments to accidentally infect their own population. During the 1970s, the USSR accidentally infected its own population with both the plague and smallpox in Aralsk, a city near a bioweapons research centre in the Aral Sea. This highlights how volatile bioweaponry is, and even under the most controlled environments, it cannot easily be restrained. Biological warfare is clearly both inhumane and ineffective as a form of combat. As such, there have been attempts to outlaw it in the past.

The 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibited the use of chemical and biological weapons following World War I, and the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention outlawed the production of biological arms. However, as with most cases of international law, these have failed to prevent countries from producing biological weapons and conducting research into chemical warfare.

For example, the Soviet Union was a signatory of the 1972 treaty, yet continued producing tons of Anthrax bacilli and smallpox viruses for use within intercontinental ballistic missiles and engineered multi drug-resistant bacteria, including the plague. These international treaties are simply not enough, as countries just use them to virtue signal while researching methods to commit human rights abuses in secret.

What can be done?

Perhaps the only way to prevent the use of biological weapons use is to advocate for world peace. The governments of the world will fund their research if any prospect of political unrest is on the horizon, whether internal or external. The best the civilian population can do is to protest against it. Any form of violent opposition will be met with swift retaliation from the government, including the use of chemical warfare. Therefore, protests must be peaceful and en masse. The higher the attendance, the more visible the problem is to lawmakers, and the more likely they will address it.

Another way to combat this issue is to change the way we teach epidemiology in schools. Nowadays, children learn military history with an emphasis on the logistics of battles, economics and statistics. If we emphasize empathy and the sicknesses that arise from war, I believe this would contribute to their understanding of biochemical warfare and the roles their own governments play in it.

For example, almost every school student learns about World War I, but not its epidemiological aspects. The Spanish Flu of 1918 killed over 25 million across Europe while diseases in the trenches killed more soldiers than the Battle of the Somme. If students understand the true extent of the potential damage, I believe it will shift the mindset of a whole generation of lawmakers and politicians.

Biological warfare has been a part of military history for thousands of years, and its discontinued use is doubtful. Yet its disregard for human life, emphasis on military victory and penchant for exacerbating human suffering show that it must be discontinued. With enough outcry and re-education on the issue, we may see the end of bio-weaponry research within our lifetimes.

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The Organization for World Peace